The legal environment impeding access to sterile syringes and needles: The conflict between law enforcement and public health

Lawrence O. Gostin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


This article examines the legal environment for programs to prevent transmission of HIV and other blood-borne diseases among injection drug users (IDUs). Cost-effective public health programs often have questionable legal authority, and health professionals, community activists, and IDUs may be subject to arrest and prosecution. Legal impediments to the sale and distribution of syringes exist in every state: 47 states have drug paraphernalia statutes, 8 states have syringe prescription statutes, and 23 states have pharmacy regulations or practice guidelines. The Mail Order Drug Paraphernalia Act permits federal enforcement against individuals who knowingly sell or distribute syringes to IDUs. Congress has prohibited the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs (SEPs). Legal restrictions on access to sterile syringes present formidable obstacles to public health prevention. These restrictions render it much more difficult for pharmacists to sell syringes over the counter or for physicians to prescribe syringes, create a chilling effect on IDUs seeking to comply with medical advice and protect themselves and their partners from disease, and place significant obstacles on the lawful establishment and operation of SEPs. Public health authorities have only sometimes creatively circumvented legal restrictions through judicial declarations of lawfulness, municipal declarations of a 'state of emergency,' and by use of the 'necessity' defense. I recommend repeal of syringe prescription statutes and reform of drug paraphernalia statutes and pharmacy regulations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S60-S70
JournalJournal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes and Human Retrovirology
Issue numberSUPPL.
StatePublished - Jul 1 1998


  • Drugs
  • HIV
  • Injection drug users
  • Laws
  • Needles
  • Syringes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Allergy
  • Immunology
  • Virology


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