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Bill to legalize syringes services in Pennsylvania faces uphill battle

A sign greets drivers to Bolivar, Pa., with local homes in the background.
Nate Smallwood
For Spotlight PA
A sign greets drivers to Bolivar, Pa., with local homes in the background. It is the home of FAVOR ~ Western PA, which supports syringe services.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Jim Struzzi of Indiana County is by no means a progressive when it comes to drug policy — for example, the Republican opposes recreational marijuana. But Struzzi is pragmatic when it comes to certain public health strategies that mitigate the harms of illegal drug use in communities.

That’s why he’s sponsoring a bill to legalize syringe services in Pennsylvania. The strategy has been shown to lower the health risks associated with injection drug use while also connecting people to drug and alcohol counseling. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saysnew users of syringe programs are more likely to enter treatment and more likely to stop using drugs. Sterile syringes also prevent the transmission of HIV and blood-borne viruses, and guard against life-threatening bacterial infections.

“I’m about getting people into recovery because I know it’s possible. I know people that have suffered from addiction and gone into recovery, and are contributing members to society right now,” said Struzzi at a Thursday night community meeting in Bolivar, a borough of less than 500 people in rural Westmoreland County.

While voices like Struzzi’s illustrate a shift in public sentiment around syringe services and other harm reduction policies, the bill faces a tough path.

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The meeting was hosted by FAVOR ~ Western PA, an addiction recovery nonprofit that’s based in Bolivar. Though there’s vocal community opposition to FAVOR’s harm reduction programming, most who attended the town hall support the organization. Still, Struzzi couldn't convince everyone that syringes services are a good idea.

“There’s so many unknowns out there,” said Shirley Robertson, who lives in the nearby community of Armagh.

Robertson said the conversation was enlightening, but needs to learn more before making up her mind. Robertson’s openness is a win to FAVOR executive director Kim Botteicher, who said that stigma against people who use illegal drugs is a primary roadblock to better policies.

Botteicher has publicly stated that she is willing to provide sterile syringes and other safe-use supplies to people who are in active addiction. This resulted in Westmoreland County pulling a $150,000 grant, which County Commissioner Douglas Chew said was necessary to avoid litigation risks.

Struzzi said FAVOR losing the money proves that syringe services need to be legalized in Pennsylvania: it’s one of just 12 states where they’re banned. The bill was recently voted out of the House Judiciary Committee, but support is less robust in the Republican-controlled Senate. Chances are slim that it will pass this legislative session.

Dr. Mark Guy of Allegheny Health Network’s Center for Recovery Medicine was also at the meeting. He drives from Pittsburgh to Bolivar a couple of times a month to provide medical care at FAVOR. Guy said he often sees patients with painful soft-tissue wounds and bacterial infections in the heart or spine that were caused by reusing and sharing dirty syringes.

“We’ve really got to get beyond … our two-dimensional understandings that have this be a binary ‘good and bad’ sort of thing, and start looking at people and how they’re suffering,” he said.

Ed Mahon of Spotlight PA contributed to this article.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.