Victory! MA Court Rules in Favor of Needle Distribution Programs

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In a decision with critical implications for the state’s efforts to combat the opioid epidemic and reduce transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled unanimously  on June 14, 2017 that needle access programs such as those run by HIV service programs, community health initiatives or other social service agencies are legal without restriction under state law.

The decision in AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod v. Town of Barnstable affirms that any organization or individual may distribute hypodermic needles and syringes throughout the Commonwealth, and that such programs are not limited to those operated by the Department of Public Health.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) heard argument in this landmark syringe access case on February 14, 2017.

GLAD and AIDS Action Committee are representing AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod in this case in which the town of Barnstable attempted to shut down ASGCC’s life-saving needle access program.

“The trial judge agreed with us in his initial ruling: MA law is clear that there are no restrictions on an individual or organization providing access to clean needles,” says GLAD’s AIDS Law Project Director Ben Klein, who will present argument at the SJC. “But the Town of Barnstable’s recalcitrance makes it important for the SJC to declare that’s exactly what the law is.”

Read our FAQ about this case.

Case History

December 2, 2015: Victory! Declaring that AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod’s (ASGCC) needle access program “saves lives,” a Superior Court judge, in a first-of-its kind ruling, issued a preliminary injunction against the town of Barnstable, which had tried to shut down a needle distribution program run by the group in Hyannis. The injunction ensures that ASGCC can continue providing its life-saving services to injection drug users.

GLAD and AIDS Action Committee are representing AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod (ASGCC) in a suit filed in Barnstable Superior Court, against the town of Barnstable for preventing the group from providing free sterile needles to intravenous drug users at its Hyannis offices.

Update November 10, 2015: 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.

In 2006, the Massachusetts legislature repealed all prohibitions and restrictions on the possession and distribution of hypodermic needles, precisely to address the public health emergency at the center of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 Hepatitis C 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.

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.