Connecting state and local government leaders

Needle-Exchange Case Heads to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court


Connecting state and local government leaders

The case has the potential to set a precedent that could determine the future of syringe programs in the Bay State.

Massachusetts’ highest court heard oral arguments Tuesday regarding a lawsuit between the town of Barnstable and the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod, a local nonprofit, over the legality of its syringe-access program.

The case has the potential to set a statewide precedent that could determine which rules and regulations apply to needle programs, and which entities are entitled to operate them—an issue of particular concern given the commonwealth’s ongoing opioid abuse epidemic.

The issue before the court hinges primarily on legal interpretation. Up for debate is the intention of the legislature when it made the possession of needles legal in 2006. The town argues that the legislature’s aim was simply to make it easier for adults to purchase needles from pharmacies, while the AIDS Support Group claims that the purpose of the 2006 legalization was to allow for broad coverage of anyone wishing to possess and distribute needles.

Since 2009, the AIDS Support Group has run a needle-distribution program in Hyannis, Massachusetts, to provide clean syringes to community members who are addicted to intravenous drugs as an attempt to safeguard the local community from the potential spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C.

In September 2015, local officials representing the town of Barnstable, in which the village of Hyannis is located, ordered that the syringe program be shut down, over concerns that an increasing number of discarded needles were being found around the town. In cease-and-desist letter, those officials claimed the nonprofit had broken the law.

The town of Barnstable pointed to Chapter 111, Section 215 of the Massachusetts General Laws that states that the commonwealth’s department of public health may implement needle exchange programs, and that those programs must secure permission from the local board of health before they can begin operations.

The town alleges that the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod never received that approval from the Barnstable Town Council, despite the fact that the program has been running for six years. The town claims it only became aware of the exchange in 2015.  

In response, the AIDS Support Group argues that that same statute does not specify that other entities are not permitted to operate these exchanges and that the legislature’s decision to legalize syringes in 2006 rendered the town’s approval unnecessary. The AIDS Group further argues, in a brief submitted ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, that if the legislature had wanted to limit the distribution of needles, it would have done just that.

Both sides of the lawsuit associate serious public health concerns with their respective arguments. Chief among the town’s worries is the apparent rise in discarded needles found in public places.

“There’s been a huge proliferation of discarded needles around town,” Charles McLaughlin, the assistant town attorney for Barnstable, told The Boston Globe in 2015. “The town green is littered with discarded sharps with no caps on them.”

While, on the other hand, 31 public health and advocacy groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the program in Hyannis, citing the health service these initiatives provide—the potential to prevent the spread of serious blood-borne illnesses.

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Quinn Libson is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty, based in Washington, D.C.

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