09/24/2014 10:25 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2015

With Rise in Heroin Use, We Need to Change Syringe Laws

Heroin use is rising all over the country, and with it, the number of people who consider themselves injection drug users. Here's a question: What happens to all those syringes after they are used?

Well, lots of things. In states with syringe exchange programs, those needles will hopefully make it to a biohazard container at a collection site and later to an incinerator. Things get trickier in states where syringe exchange is illegal and syringes are criminalized under drug paraphernalia laws. Some drug users still do travel to medical facilities to dispose of their used syringes. Others secure them in puncture-proof containers, such as laundry detergent bottles or coffee cans, before throwing them out. But many simply toss dirty needles in the trash, out the car window, in parks, down alleys, or wherever the needle was used. And why not? Current laws provide no incentive to properly dispose of used syringes, and every incentive to discard them immediately after use. People who take that extra step to store used syringes in a safe container expose themselves to numerous risks if caught by law enforcement -- probable cause for search, misdemeanor charges for possession of drug paraphernalia, even felony charges for any drug residue left in the barrel of the syringe.

Imagine if the law said that anyone who finds a lost wallet and turns it into the police station will immediately become the prime suspect in the robbery. Obviously, no one would turn in lost wallets. Yet drug users who turn in used syringes to a medical facility could be charged with multiple felonies if the police caught them en route. The law doesn't distinguish between syringes kept secure in a hard wall container where they can't harm anyone and syringes tossed in public parks where any kid near the playground could come in contact with them. These needles are not only an injury hazard, but a serious health hazard as they may be contaminated with blood borne disease such as HIV or hepatitis C. Law enforcement are also in danger of needle-stick wounds every time they conduct a search. It's not that drug users don't care about exposing others to risk, but if you weigh a potential felony against the "feel-good" of doing the right thing, it's easy to see why many people prefer to get rid of a needle as soon as possible.

It would be nice if the solution to all this were to simply take a tougher stance on drug use and paraphernalia. But that's not the solution, and it rarely is. As we know from decades of broken drug policies, cracking down harder on syringes only increases the incidence of disease, raises the taxpayer burden for medical treatment and incarceration, and does nothing -- I repeat, nothing -- to stop people from using drugs. Instead of creating laws that sound good but in reality cause more harm, we should encourage laws that provide incentives for people to do the right thing. Want drug users to clean up their used syringes? Protect them from charges if the syringes are stored in a safe container. Provide more biohazard collection sites and information on where to find them. We want injection drug users to do the right thing. And yes, they want to do the right thing too. But for that we need sensible changes to current syringe laws.