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MA SJC to Hear Barnstable Needle Access Case February 14 in Midst of Opioid Crisis

GLAD and AIDS Action to Argue that MA Law Permits and Promotes Needle Access

Updated: the date of argument has been rescheduled for February 14 due to weather.

On Tuesday, February 14, the Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments in the case AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod v. Town of Barnstable, in which AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod (ASGCC) will argue that its program providing sterile needles to people who inject drugs is indisputably legal under Massachusetts law.

The case originated in September 2015 when the town of Barnstable issued a cease-and-desist order to ASGCC, demanding that it shut down the program. After a two-day evidentiary hearing in Barnstable Superior Court, the trial judge issued a strong ruling in favor of ASGCC.

“This case will determine the scope of our ability to stem the tide of HIV and Hepatitis C transmission among people who inject drugs and prevent deaths from fatal overdoses” said GLAD’s AIDS Law Project Director Ben Klein, who will present argument at the SJC. “The Legislature repealed all restrictions on the possession and distribution of needles in 2006 in order to address this public health crisis. It is important for the SJC to declare that providing clients with sterile needles is entirely lawful.”

“The Cape Cod community has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, but so have other regions of the state. We need a clear, unambiguous statement from our highest court that these life-saving programs are legal,” said Andrew Musgrave, Director of Legal Services for AIDS Action Committee, which joined GLAD in defending ASGCC’s right to provide sterile needles to people who inject drugs. “We cannot risk another situation in which services are interrupted by overzealous officials. Nor can we risk legal challenges to the creation of new programs.”

ASGCC provides clients with services including HIV testing, assistance with health insurance, linkage to medical care, and referrals to housing, mental health services and substance abuse treatment. Clients who inject drugs are offered access to clean needles, as well as Narcan, which is used to reverse drug overdoses.

“Our mission is to protect the public health of all the residents of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, so we will use all legal means available to make that happen,” said Joe Carleo, CEO and President of ASGCC. “On Cape Cod and the Islands, we face the highest rate of deaths from opioid overdose in the state and we also have the highest rate of HEP C infections. Our needle access program works to prevent the further spread of HIV and HEP C, while also keeping our addicted sons, daughters, partners, parents, siblings or spouses alive until they can get treatment and, with help, lasting recovery.”

The case will have implications for needle access programs across the state, which is in the midst of an opioid crisis on top of the HIV and hepatitis epidemics. Medical and public health organizations including Partners Healthcare, UMass Memorial Healthcare, the Massachusetts Infectious Disease Society, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts have filed an amicus brief authored by the law firm Mintz Levin supporting ASGCC, demonstrating the scientific and public health consensus that clean needles save lives.

In addition to Ben Klein of GLAD, ASGCC is represented by Andrew Musgrave of AIDS Action Committee.

More information and case documents can be found here.

An FAQ on this case can be found here.