In a major victory for public health programs that stem the tide of HIV and hepatitis C, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled on December 6, 2002 that needle exchange program participants may lawfully possess needles throughout the state, not merely in the city or town in which the program is sited.  The court also ruled that police may not arrest a needle exchange participant for unlawful possession of syringes if the person presents the police with a valid needle exchange program identification card.  The landmark decision puts to rest the claims by the Lynn Police Department and some others that the protection from arrest applies only in the few locales in Massachusetts that have approved the siting of a needle exchange program—Boston, Cambridge, Provincetown, and Northampton.

GLAD filed a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of thirty state and national medical, public health, substance abuse, and AIDS service organizations, including the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and the Boston and Cambridge Public Health Departments. The defendant, Maria Landry, was represented by the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
The court agreed with GLAD’s argument, based on conclusive scientific evidence that needle exchange saves lives by reducing transmission of HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C, and is one of the most effective mechanisms to engage the high-risk population of intravenous drug users in substance abuse treatment services.

Although Massachusetts lags behind many states in providing access to clean needles for intravenous drug users, the Massachusetts Legislature has authorized the establishment of ten programs throughout the state, as long as “local approval” is granted by the city or town in which the program is sited. Programs currently exist in Boston, Cambridge, Northampton, and Provincetown. At the time that the legislature passed the law authorizing needle exchange programs, it also amended the law that specifies who may lawfully possess a hypodermic needle by providing that possession of needles obtained through an authorized exchange program “shall not be a crime.”

In its decision, the state’s highest court agreed with GLAD that the Legislature clearly intended that once a needle is lawfully obtained, the exemption from criminal prosecution is not limited to the town in which the program is sited. Further, needle exchange participants who possess a valid enrollment card should be immune from arrest for possession of a needle.