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Move to allow needle exchange programs without state approval awaits Gov. Holcomb’s signature

INDIANAPOLIS – Not without controversy, Gov. Eric Holcomb is expected to sign legislation in the coming days that could drastically expand needle exchange programs statewide.

“It’s a healthcare situation,” State Sen. Jim Merritt (R-Indianapolis) said, one of the bill’s authors.

The measure will allow cities and counties to begin their own needle exchange program without state approval, a move meant to help curb the state’s drug crisis and stop another HIV or Hepatitis C outbreak linked to drugs.

Critics, though, have called the legislation ‘state-sanctioned drug use.’

“We need to decide if we’re okay with that,” State Sen. Erin Houchin (R-Salem) said.

But supporters point to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publicly backing such programs nationwide, crediting them with helping stop the spread of disease linked to intravenous drug use.

Nine counties – Allen, Clark, Fayette, Lawrence, Madison, Monroe, Scott, Tippecanoe and Wayne – have received state approval to set up exchanges after being deemed a public health emergency by the Indiana State Department of Health.

That stipulation will no longer be required.

“No one wants to encourage drug use nor do they want to encourage unhealthy communities,” Laura Albright said, a FOX59 political analyst and political science professor at the University of Indianapolis.  “The challenge of course – the conflict when those two are at odds with each other.”

The move among Indiana Republicans is in direct contradiction from Vice President Mike Pence, who as governor in 2015, implemented a targeted exchange in Scott County in response to the HIV outbreak.

“I do not support needle exchanges,” Pence said at the time. “But this is a public health emergency.”

Now lawmakers have given cities and counties the green light to expand the program even more.

Under the measure, cities and counties could still seek state approval for a public health emergency. State health officials will continue to monitor any new exchanges to ensure they comply with state law.

“It’s obviously a different direction and I think part of it is hindsight is 20/20,” Albright said. “By having a program like this, if as we expect Gov. Holcomb signs this bill into law, it would prevent something like the 2015 Scott County outbreak from reoccurring.”