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Drugs in South Florida: Sensible Laws Ahead?

If the second time is a charm, Florida may soon take steps toward enlightened drug policy. For the upcoming legislative session in Tallahassee, proposals that were introduced but died stillborn last year have been revived, and with bipartisan support.

One would rewrite mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for possession of pain pills. The other, still being drafted, would institute a trial needle-exchange program in Miami-Dade. Area legislators are playing leading roles in advancing the policies.

In the Senate, Miami Lakes Sen. Oscar Braynon is drafting a needle-exchange proposal, while West Palm Beach Rep. Mark Pafford is committed to introducing a companion bill in the House. The bill on mandatory minimums for painkillers has been filed by Plantation Rep. Katie Edwards, cosponsored by Daytona Beach Shores Republican David Hood.

That a pilot needle-exchange program for Miami-Dade failed to become law last spring was due more to timing than to lack of political support, according to Pafford, who, along with Miami Sen. Gwen Margolis, sponsored that proposal. "With 2,000 bills heard in 60 days," he told New Times, "it's impossible to enact if it goes late in the session."

That measure, HB 735, had the support of numerous state medical bodies and passed out of the House Health Quality Subcommittee on a 12-0 vote. This session, the GOP chair of the Senate Health Quality Committee, Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach, has voiced support for a renewed measure.

Needle-exchange programs, which provide free, clean needles to intravenous drug users, have been shown to be effective as a public health measure to prevent the spread of disease. A February study from the federal Centers for Disease Control reported that almost 50,000 people throughout South Florida are living with HIV; about 10,000 of those are believed to be intravenous drug users, according to a University of Miami study.

Katie Edwards' bill, HB 99, would adjust the penalties for trafficking in oxycodone and hydrocodone. Currently, possession of those pills is treated according to total weight of the pills rather than weight of the pills' active ingredients.

That means, Edwards told New Times, "As few as seven pills can get you a mandatory minimum of three years in jail and a $60,000 fine." Under her measure, penalties would remain harsh but would be triggered only by significantly greater amounts.

Edwards, one of the legislature's more centrist Democrats, told us the current law's "fiscal impact, the costs of incarceration, was a catalyst" for her interest in the issue. She says she "worked very hard with GOP leaders" on the measure and is "looking to adjust the bill in accord with representatives of law enforcement."

"We need a war on addiction, not a war on drugs," Edwards said. "We need to address the demand side and put a premium back on substance abuse treatment."

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.

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