Unanimous decision can boost state’s efforts to combat the opioid epidemic and reduce spread of HIV and Hepatitis C
In a decision with critical implications for the state’s efforts to combat the opioid epidemic and reduce transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled unanimously that needle access programs such as those run by HIV service programs, community health initiatives or other social service agencies are legal without restriction under state law.
The decision in AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod v. Town of Barnstable affirms that any organization or individual may distribute hypodermic needles and syringes throughout the Commonwealth, and that such programs are not limited to those operated by the Department of Public Health.
The case concerned a needle distribution program run by AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod (ASGCC) that was shut down by Barnstable town officials. The Court affirmed a trial court ruling that ASGCC’s Hyannis-based program operates legally and may continue to distribute needles to people who inject drugs. Access to sterile needles is the key strategy to prevent the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C among people who inject drugs. ASGCC and programs like it also provide clients with free Narcan, which reverses fatal drug overdoses.
The Department of Public Health recently reported that opioids were the confirmed cause of 1,465 deaths and suspected in another 514 deaths in 2016.
“This decision will mean the difference between life and death for people struggling with addiction,” said GLAD’s AIDS Law Project Director Ben Klein, who argued the case before the SJC on behalf of ASGCC. “Barnstable put their image as a tourist town above protecting people’s lives. The Court saw through that. It is unconscionable to block an effective public health service simply because some in the town may find it unsavory. I’m gratified that the SJC affirmed that needle distribution is both legal and life-saving.”
“We needed an unambiguous statement from our highest court that these programs are legal and we got that today,” said Andrew Musgrave, Director of Legal Services for AIDS Action Committee, which joined GLAD as co-counsel. “Going forward, officials in every city and town in this state must understand that the law supports the most effective methods we have today to prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C among injection drug users.”
“The opioid epidemic is one of the worst public health crises we’ve seen since the AIDS epidemic. Today’s decision that our program is lawful will go a long way to save lives,” said Joe Carleo, CEO of the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod. “We work hard to build relationships with drug users to keep them alive and safe from HIV and Hepatitis C by getting them tested, providing needed services and guiding our clients into treatment when they are ready. We will continue working hard with law enforcement and community stakeholders across Cape Cod to put an end to our deadly opioid epidemic.”
ASGCC is at the forefront fighting the opioid epidemic. ASGCC’s harm reduction programs work to decrease the risk of acquiring or transmitting communicable infections such as HIV, viral hepatitis and other sexually transmitted infections. A major focus of this work is among the agency’s 450 clients who inject drugs as well as their sexual partners and drug using partners. ASGCC’s highly qualified staff uses a set of harm reduction strategies aimed at reducing the negative consequences of substance abuse, including disease transmission and overdose, while encouraging and facilitating entry into substance abuse treatment.
The case originated in September 2015 when 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 and ordered the program immediately reopened.
An amicus brief authored by Mintz Levin on behalf of medical and public health organizations including Partners Healthcare, UMass Memorial Healthcare, the Massachusetts Infectious Disease Society, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts demonstrated 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.
Click here for a Frequently Asked Questions sheet about this case and the SJC decision.
Through strategic litigation, public policy advocacy, and education, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders works in New England and nationally to create a just society free of discrimination based on gender identity and expression, HIV status, and sexual orientation.
The AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod, one of the first AIDS organizations established in the United States, works to foster health, independence and dignity for people living with HIV/AIDS and Viral Hepatitis by providing care, support and housing. We work to help reduce the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections through prevention, education and testing services. Our services span all of Cape Cod and the Islands.
AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts is the state’s leading provider of prevention and wellness services for people living with and at risk of HIV/AIDS. AIDS Action works to stop the epidemic by eliminating new infections; maximizing healthier outcomes of those infected and at risk; and tackling the root causes of HIV/AIDS. Founded in 1983, AIDS Action is New England’s oldest and largest AIDS service organization, advocating for the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS by educating the public and health professionals about HIV prevention and care; and promoting fair and effective HIV/AIDS policy at the city, state, and federal levels. In 2013, AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts entered into a strategic partnership with Fenway Health, allowing both organizations to improve delivery of care and services across the state and beyond.