Photo Credit: Tiffany Atlas

I’ll view the solar eclipse later today from a different vantage: the steps outside the PA State Capital in Harrisburg. April 8, 2024, is a “Rally & Legislative Day” for Syringe Service Program Legalization and Health Policy Network LLC  is proud to be one of the sponsors. Organizer PA Harm Reduction Network (PAHRN) plans to have extra viewing glasses for legislators and their staff to entice them to join us outside. We’ll also be visiting legislators in their offices with educational information. My hometown’s SSP– Lancaster/ Harrisburg/ York Harm Reduction Project, will join me there, along with community recovery powerhouse Unity Recovery.

What progress have we made in Harrisburg to improve overdose prevention and harm reduction?

The Pennsylvania legislature meets in two-year sessions, and if a bill doesn’t pass within those two years, it has to be reintroduced and proceed through multiple committees and the House and Senate again.

Last session (2021-22): We got the Fentanyl Test Strips bill (HB1393 /SB845) passed unanimously in both houses!  We were especially happy that we got it amended to broaden the language so it covered all forms of drug checking, a change I’d strongly recommended in my testimony to the House Judiciary Committee. Governor Tom Wolf signed it into law in early 2023. Representative Jim Struzzi (R, Indiana) and Senator Tim Kearney (D, Montgomery) led the bipartisan effort to get their colleagues on board. Getting unanimous votes to pass a harm reduction bill in both chambers was a huge step! However, our companion bills (SB926/ HB2264) to Expand Syringe Service Programs didn’t fair so well after the Senate bill’s prime sponsor, powerful Appropriations Committee Chair Pat Browne (R, Lehigh), unexpectedly lost his seat. Since SSPs do the grassroots work to distribute drug-checking supplies and teach people how to use them, it was disappointing when neither bill even got a hearing. 

This session (2023-24): For the first time, a bill to expand syringe services has made it out of Committee and to the House floor, which means we’re 25% of the way. HB1245 is the new bill number for “Syringe Services Legislation to Reduce Overdose Deaths and Disease Transmission and Increase Connections to Care.” The House Judiciary Chair, Tim Briggs (D, Montgomery), chose to bring it up for a vote without inviting public testimony, so I sent this letter to urge a “yes” vote on HB1245. The bill was introduced by Sarah Innaramato (D, Allegheny) right before she left the PA House to serve as Mayor of Pittsburgh; co-sponsor Rep. Struzzi is taking the lead to shepherd it forward. This year’s bill has gained more cosponsors than last session’s, with two dozen signing on, including Lancaster’s Representative Izzi Smith-Wade-El

Bright spots: If the bill gets a floor vote and passes in the House, getting through the Senate is expected to be challenging. Media coverage has been growing, including a “Science Friday” interview featuring Spotlight PA and WESA’s excellent reporting. A bright spot during the House Judiciary’s vote was hearing a former rural PA Police Chief, Representative Tim Rigby (R, Cambria), vote yes on the bill, against pressure from his caucus. It’s really helpful when a former prosecutor or police officer explains that they decided to support public health approaches to illicit drug use because of what they learned on the job. 

Learn more: 

Advocating for Policy Change in Pennsylvania

Pa. law blocks needles, care, compassion for people trapped in addiction, Feb. 29, 2024, PennLive, David Wenner

Proposed Pennsylvania law aims to redefine needles, promote syringe service programs, 

Feb. 23, 2024, Joshua Oculam, Fox 56 TV

Here I am outside of the PA State Capital at the end of a long day, on April 8th, 2024. I’m posing with my former professor, and current collaborator and mentor, Amy Jessop, PhD, MPH, Director of Research at the Health Equity Projects and Research Center (HepTREC) in Philadelphia.