November 10, 2015
Update: The judge has granted ASGCC’s motion for a temporary restraining order to bar the town from enforcing the “cease and desist” order as the case proceeds.
Today in Barnstable Superior Court, AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod (ASGCC) filed suit against Barnstable for preventing the group from providing free sterile needles to intravenous drug users at its Hyannis offices. ASGCC is being represented by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and AIDS Action Committee (AAC). The legal documents can be read here.
“Barnstable’s board of health has absolutely no legal authority to shut down this program, because this program is entirely legal,” said attorney Bennett Klein, AIDS Law Project Director of GLAD. “In 2006, the legislature repealed all prohibitions and restrictions on the possession and distribution of hypodermic needles, precisely to address the public health emergency at the center of this case: the HIV and HCV epidemics.”
On September 22, 2015, Barnstable’s director of public health hand-delivered to ASGCC a hand-written “cease and desist” order in which he asserted that ASGCC was distributing syringes in violation of Massachusetts law. After ASGCC indicated they were suing to challenge the order, the Board of Health suspended the order for one week (from 11/3-11/10) and asked ASGCC and the town to reach an agreement addressing neighborhood concerns. ASGCC agreed to address parking issues and to implement a program to pick up improperly discarded syringes. While ASGCC was formulating the plan, the town unreasonably escalated its demands.
Prior to the order, ASGCC served 20-30 injection drug users per day at its Hyannis office, where they received comprehensive services including free testing for HIV and Hepatitis C; medical case management and referrals to drug rehabilitation programs; nutritious meals; and other social supports. After the cease-and-desist order, ASGCC was seeing two or three injection drug users per day.
”“There is no doubt in my mind that each day we are prevented from offering sterile drug injection equipment is another day that someone in Barnstable County has needlessly become infected with hepatitis C or HIV,” said Max Sandusky, Director of Prevention and Screening Services at ASGCC. There is also no doubt in my mind that our clients, who also received Narcan from us, are now also at high risk for fatal overdose. This is a public health emergency.”
“Every city and town in Massachusetts has been touched by the opioid crisis. Shutting down a program that works―this year alone, AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod helped reverse nearly 300 overdoses―has recklessly and needlessly put the public at risk,” said Carl Sciortino, Executive Director of AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts. “We know that needle exchange programs are incredibly effective interventions that help lower transmission rates of HIV and Hepatitis C. Since the establishment of free needle exchanges in Massachusetts, the prevalence of HIV among residents who inject drugs has dropped by 92 percent.”
ASGCC has been a collaborative community partner in working to keep the public safe during the opioid crisis. While there are other entities that make sterile syringes and needles available to injection drug users―such as pharmacies―these institutions do not collect needles and syringes that have been used, as ASGCC does. From July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015, ASGCC distributed 112,604 syringes and collected 115,209. Thanks to ASGCC’s policy of encouraging clients to bring in used needles for proper disposal, 2,605 needles that were distributed by institutions other than ASGCC and which might otherwise have been improperly discarded were not.
ASGCC provides services on Cape Cod to support people with HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C virus, and works to prevent the spread of those infections to others on the Cape. In Hyannis and Provincetown, ASGCC offers case management, peer support, housing, nutritional programs, testing, and risk reduction strategies to more than 800 clients. Among those risk-reduction strategies is the availability of sterile needles, along with bio-hazard containers and counseling, to injection drug users, who are at high risk for both HIV and Hepatitis C.