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The state of Oklahoma has legalized needle exchange programs, providing a safe and effective path to help reduce overdose deaths, and mitigate the spread of diseases that come from people who share needles.

Oklahoma Senate Bill 511, authored by Republican Representative Carol Bush of Tulsa, allows organizations across Oklahoma to engage in harm reduction services, including needle exchanges.

Organizations must register with the Oklahoma Department of Health, and state money cannot be used for such programs. 

Other aspects of the bill include the ability to provide information about substance abuse treatment; testing drugs for the presence of toxins; and completing rapid testing for diseases transmitted through people who share needles. 

Program connects people to services

“Harm reduction services,” according to SB 511, are “programs established to reduce the spread of infectious diseases from injection drug use, reduce drug dependency and overdose deaths and increase safe recovery and disposal of used syringes and sharp waste.” The bill further continues that individuals who provide harm reduction services “are exempt from restrictions regarding possession of certain drug paraphernalia.” 

Brittany Hayes, policy director for the Healthy Minds Policy Initiative, a think tank that addresses mental health programs, notes the benefits of SB 511, particularly the needle exchange initiatives and substance abuse treatment information, stating, “Ultimately, the goal is to help participants lead safer and healthier lives. Generally, that’s done through connection to services.”

Needle exchange programs are not new services, even in such conservative states as Oklahoma. Even former Vice President Mike Pence briefly approved a needle exchange program as the governor of Indiana, to deal with the state’s HIV epidemic. While the program was endorsed by the Center for Disease Control, Mr. Pence only instituted it for a 30-day period. 

Oklahoma Senate Bill 511 will be addressed by the Oklahoma State Department of Health, which will create a framework for the program, along with parameters for data collection on those who utilize the services. 

Erika Stone is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Oklahoma, and a graduate assistant at Schusterman Library. A Chess Memorial Scholar, she has a B.A. in Psychology...