Needle exchange programs are efforts that provide intravenous drug users with sterile needles to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. But they’re illegal in North Carolina.

A bill in front of the state House wants to make needle exchanges legal and fund three pilot programs at a cost of $550,000.

The bill, HB411 with the short title “Funds for Clean Syringe Program,” did not make it out of committee last year, but N.C. AIDS March organizers hope it has a chance in the short session this year if it can make it into the governor’s budget. The needle exchange proposal has been around the General Assembly in one form or another since 1997.

The bill does three things: creates three community-based, pilot needle exchange programs; makes participants, volunteers and employees of needle exchanges immune from prosecution for carrying syringes; and funds the programs and a study of the program’s effects.

In order to qualify for one of the potential pilot programs, a county’s board of commissioners, the local board of health, health director and director of mental health or substance abuse services all have to sign a letter of support to the state health director. So far, Guilford is the only county to have the needed support for a pilot needle exchange.

There are currently needle exchanges operating in Guilford and Buncombe counties under tacit agreement with local law enforcement.

Thelma Wright, with the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition, ran a needle exchange from 1999 to 2004 in Guilford County before handing the program off to another. Wright now works as a community activist focusing on intravenous drug users and is helping organize a march in downtown Raleigh on Friday to support the bill. She says the message she hopes to get across is that needle exchange programs are “not about allowing people to use drugs, but helping people stay healthy until they can stop.”

Needle exchanges don’t just help keep drug users from contracting HIV, but also protect law enforcement, she says. If an addict is stopped by police with a dirty needle, he or she probably won’t tell the officer about it because possessing the needle is a misdemeanor. The officer could end up getting stuck by the needle and possibly infected with HIV or hepatitis. If the legislature legalized needle exchanges, addicts enrolled in the program would be immune from the drug paraphernalia charge and would be more likely to tell police about the needle, Wright says.

Marce Abare, a staff member with Global Justice and one of the march organizers, says she hopes the marchers can “directly address Gov. Easley and shed light on the issue.”

Easley’s office directed questions to the Department of Health and Human Services. Evelyn Foust, the state AIDS director with DHHS, fully supports needle exchange programs. “There is strong evidence nationally that [needle exchange] programs reduce the spread of HIV and in no way increase drug use,” Foust says.

“In order to treating addiction, you have to meet people where they are,” she says, explaining that the needle exchanges are a good way to get addicts into the healthcare system to help them with all medical problems, especially addiction.

While the legislature debates this politically unpopular issue, Foust says, “People are getting infected; we don’t have any time to lose.”

Foust said DHHS’s current estimate is that there are almost 29,000 people living with HIV or AIDS in North Carolina, with over 1,700 new cases reported every year for the past four years.

Foust says critics who say “somehow, we’re encouraging drug use” are being “shortsighted.”

“From the public health perspective, we’ve got to do whatever we can,” Foust says. “It’s time. North Carolina can do this.”

Students and community activists are planning the N.C. AIDS March in support of legislation supporting needle exchanges on Friday, April 7, in downtown Raleigh starting at 11 a.m. at the Bicentennial Mall on Jones Street and making its way to the legislative building, where politicians and HIV-positive youth plan to speak.