Massachusetts Supreme Court Ruling Supports Needle Exchange Programs

December 6, 2002 12:00 am

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BOSTON — Citing compelling public health concerns, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts today ruled that members of lawful needle exchange programs may possess needles obtained from the programs throughout the Commonwealth, even in cities or towns that have not allowed the programs themselves to locate there.

“This ruling will allow needle exchange programs to work as the legislature intended, to save the lives of those addicted to drugs, their partners, and children,” said Sarah Wunsch, the ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney who handled the case of Maria Landry, a needle exchange participant. Landry was arrested and charged with illegal possession of needles in the city of Lynn even though she was a member of the Cambridge needle exchange program.

Lynn city officials insisted that because the city of Lynn had not approved the location of a program within its borders, members of the four legal programs in Boston, Cambridge, Provincetown and Northampton could not possess needles in Lynn. The ACLU said that today’s ruling flatly rejects this argument.

“This is the latest in a series of victories for syringe exchange programs around the nation,” said Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project, which has had much success with needle exchange cases throughout the country. “Many state legislatures have created exchange programs, and now courts are consistently protecting the programs from police interference. This will save lives and protect the public health.”

While it praised the ruling, the ACLU said it believes that it is time for the legislature to act to expand needle exchange programs, allowing them to be located in any city or town where the Department of Public Health feels they should operate.

A number of law enforcement officials, including former Suffolk District Attorney Ralph Martin and current Somerville Chief of Police George McLean supported the needle exchange program by filing a friend-of-the-court-brief stating that needle exchange programs do not hinder law enforcement, and protect the public by helping get addicts into treatment.

“Evidence has demonstrated that needle exchange programs help everyone in the community,” Wunsch said. “They help get people into drug treatment programs, and they protect the public by encouraging the exchange of dirty needles instead of having them discarded in alleys.”

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