By: Tessie Castillo, Communications and Advocacy Coordinator, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC)
In July 2016, North Carolina accomplished what many said could never be done – we legalized syringe exchange programs, which are proven to lower HIV and hepatitis C rates among people who inject drugs.
It took many years of planning and effort, as well as strategic partnerships with a variety of stakeholders to move the needle on this issue. We’d like to share a few of the strategies that worked well so that other advocates hoping to change hearts and minds on HIV prevention and harm reduction issues can use the lessons we have learned.
1. Craft a clear, concise message and choose the right messenger. The message around syringe exchange programs (SEPs) is pretty simple:
- SEPs lower HIV and hep C for the community;
- SEPs are a portal to treatment for people who are marginalized from health care and recovery programs; and
- SEPs lower needle-stick injury to LEOs by 66%.
We hammered home these three points in presentations, OpEds, media interviews, conversations with stakeholders, and everywhere else we could think of. Choosing the messenger required a bit more work. Since law enforcement had been the biggest opponent to syringe exchange programs in previous years, they were the perfect messengers.
We began setting up meetings with Chiefs of Police and Sheriffs, focusing primarily on those who had or wanted to start naloxone programs, since they seemed more sympathetic to nontraditional approaches to problems associated with drug use. After explaining our three points above, the majority (about 90%) of the law enforcement we talked to agreed that SEPs were a good idea. We asked them for a 2-3 sentence quote on why they supported SEPs and compiled all the quotes onto one page, which we presented during every meeting with every legislator over the next few months. This quote sheet was magic. MAGIC. It was the number one thing that took legislators from opposed or squeamish about syringe exchange programs to fully on board. It also neutralized opposition from law enforcement lobby groups, who had previously been vocally opposed to syringe exchange programs.
2. Choose the appropriate legislative sponsor. Legislative sponsors, the people who actually introduce your bill into the House or Senate, are very important. One of the ugly truths of politics is that so many bills go through the legislature per session, legislators don’t have time to read them all. Often, they just look at the bill sponsor. If it is someone they respect and usually agree with, they will vote for the bill. Knowing this, we carefully selected our bill sponsors as people who were from the majority party and trusted among their peers.
3. Create a list of target legislators and convince them to support the bill. Months before the start of session, we sat down with our primary bill sponsor and created a list of legislators who were likely to influence our bill because:
- They were the chairs of committees the bill would likely go through;
- They were well-known for legislation on drug/medical issues;
- They were likely to oppose the bill and others listen to them;
- They have a lot of influence at the legislature; and/or
- They have a medical/law enforcement background.
The goal was to have these legislators on our side, or at least not opposed to the bill, prior to the start of session. As mentioned above, legislators tend to follow the votes of other people they respect. If you can find and convince these few influential legislators, you have the votes of a lot of others as well.
After getting a list of target legislators (only about four) from our sponsor, we created strategies to seek their support for the bill. We flooded their newspapers with OpEds and articles in favor of syringe exchange. We sat down with the Chiefs of Police and Sheriffs in their district to get quotes for our quote sheet. We met with their health directors, heads of drug treatment centers and pastors from the larger churches. It was not until we had a robust group of influential constituent supporters that we reached out to the actual legislators. This process took months of work, but it was well worth the effort. We invited the targeted legislators to meetings attended by all the supporters we had cultivated in their districts so that they could hear from their own constituents why SEPs are a good idea. The outcome of the meeting was usually decided before the legislator even walked in the door.
4. After introducing the bill, don’t slack on the leg work. By the time the legislative session actually started, we were in pretty good shape. Our law enforcement quote sheet was growing and working wonders. We had also successfully convinced the majority of our target legislators to support the bill. Once the bill was actually introduced, the rest was leg work – we met with the legislators on every committee that the bill went through to ask them to vote for the bill. We created informational flyers that we passed out to all other legislators. We urged constituents through listserv emails to contact their legislators and ask for their vote. When problems came up and the bill stalled, as it did many times, we kept urging the legislators, especially the sponsors and key supporters, to keep trying and asked our listserv allies to keep making calls. (There is a fine line between being persistent and being pushy, but we tried not the cross that line).
Eventually, the work paid off. In July 2016, Governor McCrory signed the first law legalizing syringe exchange programs in North Carolina. In just two months, over a dozen syringe exchange programs have popped up all over the state and more organizations are coming forward expressing interest in starting one. Hopefully advocates in other states can learn from NC and succeed in their own campaigns to legalize syringe exchange programs.
That’s the bare bones explanation of how we legalized syringe exchange programs in North Carolina. Click here for a more narrative version of the process.
Fact sheets and other materials to help advocate for syringe exchange programs (including the law enforcement quote sheet) are available here: http://www.nchrc.org/syringe-exchange/factsheets-on-syringe-exchange/.
Disclaimer: Guest blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the ADAP Advocacy Association, but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about public health-related issues and updates.