A VOCAL Victory

By Rob Banaszak on September 13, 2010 in Syringe Access Fund

by Sean Barry,
Director, NYC AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN) &
Voices Of Community Advocates and Leaders (VOCAL)

No one should be locked up for trying to protect themselves and the community. Who wants to do the right thing and keep getting the wrong results?” — participant in VOCAL’s Stuck in the System report on legal barriers to syringe access in New York.

Governor Paterson and members of NYCAHN/VOCAL

Carrying new syringes and safely disposing of used ones to prevent the spread of HIV should be lauded as responsible public health, not treated as a crime.  But that’s exactly how New York’s Penal Code defined syringe possession until a law passed this summer updating it nearly two decades after syringe exchange programs first became legal in our state. What’s equally remarkable is that the new law passed because of grassroots organizing by active and former injection drug users through an innovative campaign supported by the Syringe Access Fund.

The VOCAL-NY Users Union, a project of the NYC AIDS Housing Network (NYCAHN), is building power among active and former drug users to create healthier and more just communities.  VOCAL members decided to work on a syringe access campaign because many of them had experienced police harassment and arrests for syringe possession.  Moreover, they knew that the fear of being locked up discouraged people from using syringe exchange programs that could save their lives, even though program participants were issued cards explaining it was legal to possess syringes under the Public Health Law.

The problem was that New York’s Penal Code was never updated to exempt syringe possession from the paraphernalia law or residue from the controlled substances law, despite Public Health Law exemptions.  These inconsistencies in state law resulted in confusion among law enforcement, unwarranted arrests and confiscation of syringes.  This had a broader chilling effect that helped drive a massive “syringe gap” among drug injectors in New York and high rates of syringe sharing, reuse and unsafe disposal.

VOCAL members launched the campaign by convening a meeting with staff from Governor David Paterson’s office and state legislators in charge of health and criminal justice policies.  VOCAL members presented data and anecdotal experiences of how law enforcement, confused by inconsistencies in the law, were undermining public health programs by arresting syringe exchange participants, and they presented clear recommendations for how to change it.

As a result of the meeting, the Governor submitted a bill to the legislature that would accomplish three things: clarify that possession of new syringes obtained through public health programs do not violate the paraphernalia law, exempt syringe residue from the controlled substances law, and require ongoing education of law enforcement about syringe access programs, which opens up the possibility for a new health-based dialogue between drug users and police.

To build momentum for the bill, VOCAL members conducted a community research project documenting the experiences of users who had been arrested despite lawfully possessing syringes, built a statewide coalition of syringe exchange programs, met with conservative lawmakers to educate them about harm reduction, and pitched media stories highlighting the need to reconcile state laws.  Positive press coverage of our campaign and report, titled Stuck in the System: Expanding Syringe Access By Reconciling the Penal Code With The Public Health Law [www.urbanjustice.org/pdf/publications/Stuck_in_the_System.pdf], included the New York Times [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/22/nyregion/22union.html] and Daily News [http://www.nydailynews.com/news/2010/01/29/2010-01-29_cops_state_law_sticks_it_to_safeneedle_push_study_sez.html].

The bill ultimately passed the legislature with bipartisan support and was signed into law by Governor Paterson.  In his statement after the bill passed, the Governor quoted Jill Reeves, a VOCAL member who had been wrongfully arrested for syringe possession [http://www.state.ny.us/governor/press/073010HivBill.html].

Perhaps more important than the legislative victory, this campaign built the leadership of active and former drug users to advocate on their own behalf.  Our members are now working with top law enforcement agencies in the state, health departments and other stakeholders to plan implementation of the new law [http://www.buffalonews.com/editorial-page/from-our-readers/another-voice/article171581.ece].  By training users on their new rights, VOCAL members are also identifying future campaigns that will further expand syringe access so that no one contracts HIV or hepatitis C through injection drug use in the future.

The reality is that people who use drugs and their allies have always been at the forefront of activism to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and fight for human rights, despite formidable obstacles.  But in a pattern common in the HIV/AIDS world, many activists have been drawn away from advocacy into direct service work, while others, we can’t forget, have passed away.  However, the necessity of investing in community leadership to expand syringe access and improve drug user health is only growing more urgent, which VOCAL/NYCAHN has proudly benefited from due to the collaborative efforts of the Syringe Access Fund.

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