The Battle for Syringe Exchange in Texas – Interview with State Senator Deuell (R)
It’s normally Democratic candidates who support public health programs like syringe exchange, but Texas, as usual, likes to shake things up. In the Lone Star State, the champion for syringe exchange is none other than state Senator Bob Deuell, an avowed Republican.
Senator Deuell, a medical doctor by profession, was initially against the idea of syringe exchange, which allows drug users and diabetics to exchange used needles for clean ones in order to reduce the transmission of blood-borne disease. Like many people, he worried that these programs would encourage drug use.
“After reading medical reports and studies on [syringe exchange], Senator Deuell decided that it made sense from a medical perspective,” explains Scott Kirby, legislative director for Senator Deuell. “He realized that syringe exchange does not increase drug use, as he’d previously thought, and it actually lowers HIV, which is a problem in Texas. He even told Republicans that they should take opposition to syringe exchange out of their party platform because it saves lives and doesn’t do any damage.”
The bill, SB 308 Relating to Disease Control Programs, was introduced in the Texas legislature in 2003 and 2005, but stifled by partisanship. All the Democrats were for the bill, all Republicans against.
In 2007, Senator Deuell agreed to sponsor the bill. He was able to convince half the Republicans in the House that syringe exchange was a life saving program that lowered disease without raising drug use. He pointed out that syringe exchange is supported by the American Medical Association, the Pediatric Society, numerous law enforcement officers, religious leaders, pharmacists and drug counselors. That year the bill passed easily in the House, but got stuck in committees and was unable to move forward.
In 2009 Senator Deuell and supporters rallied again to pass SB 308 in a revised form. The new bill bracketed syringe exchange programs to only major cities and left the decision up to counties whether they wanted to implement the programs.
“It helps to bracket the programs just to big cities to give cover to people in rural, more conservative areas, because they know their support for the bill could end up in a 30 second ad on TV about encouraging drug use,” explains Scott Kirby.
The new bill passed the Senate easily and had the votes to pass the House as well, but it ran out of time. Then in the 2010 elections, a surge in Tea Party candidates shook up the legislature and rendered SB 308 very difficult to pass. Senator Deuell however, is not giving up.
“Senator Deuell is very passionate about this issue,” explains Scott Kirby. “It’s a long term project and he will keep at it. Syringe exchange is a hard thing because if someone will debate you, you can win, but no one debates this because facts are not on their side. We have to deal with politics and that makes it difficult.”
Senator Deuell serves as a model of brave leadership and common sense over political partisanship. We hope that his example will inspire others to put people before party and to pass much-needed legislation on syringe exchange. The fight isn’t over yet.
Thanks to Scott Kirby, Legislative Director for Senator Deuell for this interview.