Thirty-five years after AIDS was first identified, Florida will create a pilot needle exchange program to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis among heroin users.
The House voted 95-20 on Wednesday to send a bill establishing the program and Gov. Rick Scott's office said he will sign it. It will be run by the University of Miami, which can use mobile health clinics to reach areas in Miami-Dade County where people are known to use drugs intravenously.
It was praised by representatives from both parties as a way of trying to slow the spread of diseases passed through shared needles. Similar proposals have been proposed in Florida for years, but Republicans have been resistant to creating a needle exchange. Democratic Rep. Katie Edwards of Plantation said attitudes have changed with a growing awareness of the problem, along with recognition that needle exchanges help people who are already addicted, rather than promote drug use.
"This heroin epidemic is not going away. In fact, it's getting worse in certain areas and it's moving to other parts of the state. What we're doing isn't working,'' said Edwards. "We really should be devoting more conversation and resources to not only keeping the infection rates low, but also combating the war on addiction.''
The program also would offer HIV and hepatitis screenings and provide participants with information on the transmission of the diseases.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last year that Florida diagnosed more HIV cases in 2013 than any other state. Edwards said the state's success in fighting prescription drug abuse by shutting down pill mills has spurred an increase in heroin use among people who are searching for another cheap high.
Several Republicans praised the measure before the vote.
"Many of us in this chamber consider ourselves pro-life. If you're pro-life, you're pro-life from the time of conception until the time of death. We help as we can,'' said Republican Rep. Cary Pigman of Avon Park, who is a medical doctor. "We can provide clean needles, a smile, an offer to help. Maybe we can bring a life up from that pit of darkness and sadness that is addiction.''
The law will take effect July 1.