Bexar County’s Needle Exchange Program Is Finally Funded. Lawmakers Should Make Sure It Stays That Way.

Wikimedia Commons / Joe Mabel
Editor’s Note: The following is City Current, a column of opinion and analysis.

After 12 years in limbo, Bexar County finally has a funded needle exchange program.

The Texas Legislature in 2007 cleared the county to become the state’s first to pilot a program giving drug users clean needles to battle the spread of infectious diseases such as Hepatitis C and HIV.

However, a lack of support from district attorneys prevented the idea from gaining traction. Susan Reed, who served as DA until 2014, shut down the measure by threatening to prosecute anyone distributing drug paraphernalia. Her successor, Nico LaHood said he supported the idea but never delivered on concrete action.

Enter Joe Gonzales, who was elected DA in 2018 and has taken a more enlightened approach than Reed on drug issues. Gonzales, you may remember, championed the cite-and-release program that tickets people rather than jailing them for low-level, nonviolent offenses such as possessing small amounts of weed.

With Gonzales’ blessing, the county earlier this month approved $80,000 in funding for the program.

“Joe’s been very progressive, very bold, and it’s clear he wants this,” said T.J. Mayes, chairman of the county’s opioid task force.

But that support could evaporate if voters decide they’re tired of Gonzales’ approach and bring in a DA with a more archaic approach to drug offenses.
That would be unfortunate. While the county and partners such as UT Health San Antonio are still ironing out some of the program’s details, exchanges in other cities have brought measurable improvement in public health.

Beyond swapping out dirty needles for clean ones, Bexar’s program will help connect drug users with treatment programs and testing for infectious diseases. It also will provide users with the overdose-reversal drug Narcan.

“Every time we engage with someone, it’s an opportunity,” said Lisa Cleveland, an associate professor of nursing at UT Health involved in the program.

During the past legislative session, Rep. Ina Minjarez, a San Antonio Democrat, authored a bill to remove criminal penalties for providing clean needles to promote public health. That would have ensured the ongoing health of Bexar’s program and allowed other Texas counties to follow its lead.

Unfortunately, Minjarez’s bill never made it to the finish line.

Given the enormity of the opioid epidemic and its health challenges, Bexar’s program should be given the chance to succeed — even if political winds change. State lawmakers must work in the next session to ensure no future DA can stand in the way of progress.

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