State Rep. Holly Rehder (R-Sikeston) and others testified for needle exchange programs Wednesday at a Missouri Health and Mental Health Policy Committee meeting in Jefferson City.

Rep. Holly Rehder (Photo courtesy of Tim Bommel, House Communications)

Rehder, who has introduced legislation that would make these programs legal in Missouri, testified that if addicts have access to clean hypodermic needles it would reduce the transmission of diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV.

The committee did not vote on Wednesday.

There are already three organizations in Missouri that provide clean needles to addicts. Kansas City Care Clinic has run a needle exchange program for 30 years.

House Bill 88 would exempt organizations registered with the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services from drug paraphernalia laws that prevent them from distributing clean needles and syringes.

Aaron Laxton with Saint Louis-based non-profit Criminal Justice Ministry testified in favor of the bill. His organization is the third to start a needle exchange program in Missouri and has been providing needles to addicts for six months now.

Laxton says loosening laws restricting hypodermic needles could save the state money in the long run.

“If you look at most of the individuals we are serving, they are already enrolled in other social service programs. That may be Medicaid, that may be TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Famlies), that may be whatever. So when we actually get them into care, we actually do see a high incidence of people being able being able to obtain work, being able to come off services.”

Laxton says hepatitis treatment currently costs Missouri $96 million a year, and that better access to needles would reduce the number of cases and save the state money. He says exchange programs usually spend roughly $50 a month per patient and that funding would come from organizations such as the Elton John Foundation, AIDS United and the federal government — not the state.

State Rep. Keith Frederick (R-Rolla), who chairs the House Health and Mental Health Policy Committee, is concerned that people may be more likely to use heroin with more needles available.

He says that could become worse if a prescription drug monitoring program is set up in Missouri.

“I worry that there may be some folks that would be caught up in, ‘Hey it’s too expensive to by the oxycodone which is like 60 bucks a pill, and you can get heroin for 10 bucks and — by the way — it’s a clean needle.’ I worry that is too much of an invitation to somebody to go to the easier route and the cheaper route. So I think we should at least have our eyes open and consider that possibility.”

Frederick says he would need more information on needle exchanges before he came out for or against them.

Rep. Rehder introduced a bill that would exempt needle exchanges from paraphernalia restrictions in March of 2016 that was not adopted.