New syringe exchange bill would keep community safer by reducing the number of stray needles, lawmaker says

The Senate passed a bill from Sen. Jen Plumb that would create an “affirmative defense” for people who are carrying syringes from an exchange program.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A spent needle lies on the ground near 800 W. and North Temple as members of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition comb the neighborhood picking them up during a recent syringe exchange. A bill from Sen. Jen Plumb, D-Salt Lake City, would encourage participation in and proper disposal of needles through syringe exchange programs by creating an "affirmative defense" for those caught with needles obtained through them.

Syringe exchanges have been legal in Utah for nearly seven years. But participants in those programs can still get in legal trouble if they “possess with intent to use” the needles given out to them.

Freshman Sen. Jen Plumb, D-Salt Lake City, wants to encourage healthier habits among people who use syringes with a bill that would create an “affirmative defense” for those stopped by police who have obtained such drug paraphernalia from an exchange. The Senate voted unanimously in support of the bill Tuesday.

Syringe exchanges are meant to cut down on sharing needles, which can lead to the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV. It also ensures needles are being properly stored and disposed of, so community members and law enforcement are not stuck by them.

“This would go a long ways toward helping our communities with safety, syringe litter, our public safety officers, as well as the people who have the syringes themselves,” Plumb said while presenting the bill before its second reading Monday.

The measure was initially included in a bill that would legalize fentanyl test strips in Utah but was stripped from it in an effort to make that bill more palatable. When she did that, though, she said she realized there was a much bigger appetite for decriminalizing the syringes than she expected.

“Initially I wasn’t thinking that the body would be ready to talk about it,” Plumb said.

Plumb’s fentanyl test strips bill passed out of the Senate and is currently being considered by the House.

Under the bill, law enforcement officers can still use the possession of a syringe as probable cause to search or detain someone, and needles not obtained from a syringe exchange or stored properly in a sharps container remains an offense. But participation in an exchange program can remove criminal liability for the needles.

The bill has support from a wide range of stakeholders. Among those who spoke in favor of it at a Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee meeting last month are representatives from the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, the Utah Statewide Association of Prosecutors and Public Attorneys, the Utah Substance Abuse and Mental Health Advisory Council, and the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office.

Heather Bush, the HIV program manager for DHHS, said it has been giving participants cards so they can show police their involvement with the program since it began, “but there was no legality to that because we didn’t have what exactly Sen. Plumb is presenting here.”

“Most people who are involved in syringe exchange are very motivated to ... be responsible citizens,” Bush said.

Between June 2021 and 2022, the syringe exchange program distributed 1.7 million needles, but just 1.4 million were returned to exchange, Bush said. Participants said they either returned them properly elsewhere, had them stolen, or they dropped the syringes for fear of prosecution — an issue the bill aims to resolve.

“It’s a step that supports everyone,” Plumb said at the committee meeting. “It supports the communities, it supports people who are engaging in substance use and potentially want to be more well. It will help our law enforcement folks stay safer, it will also give them a path to work with prosecutors.”