Apr 19, 2012

Syringe Decriminalization: Diabetics Need Syringes Too

Syringe Decriminalization: Diabetics Need Syringes Too

As a diabetic, not having a clean syringe available for insulin injections is scary. I remember one time when I was visiting my parents and had forgotten to bring a clean syringe. My blood sugar was rising rapidly and I feared I would not be able to get insulin in my body fast enough to stop it from reaching a potentially deadly level. My partner and I frantically searched my car in hopes that somewhere I had stored a used syringe to be properly disposed of later.  I was so frustrated that I had the insulin in my hand but without a means to inject the life-saving medication.  When we eventually found one, the idea of a used syringe reentering my body felt strange, even if I knew I was the only person who had ever used it.  I wondered how difficult it would be to force myself to use a syringe with an unknown history.

I remember the force I had to use in order to break skin very vividly.  I was almost shocked by how painful it was to use this needle that had previously penetrated my skin so effortlessly and painlessly.  What was even stranger to me was how painful it was to actually push the insulin through the dull needle.  It started as an intense burn just below my skin where I had injected the insulin, but quickly radiated to the surrounding area.  The intense burning did not go away quickly. In fact, it still hurt to the touch several days later.

Thankfully, there have been very few times in my life when I did not have access to a clean syringe or have had to re-use my own needle. However, even for those few hours, being in dire need of insulin was terrifying. For many of North Carolina’s over 700,000[1] diabetics, up to a third of whom do not have health insurance and may not have a prescription for syringes, this predicament is a daily reality. In North Carolina, syringes are considered illegal drug paraphernalia if they are used or intended to be used to inject illegal drugs. Even though this means that it is not illegal to carry a syringe to use to inject insulin, it is often easier for police officers to assume that a person carrying a syringe is breaking the law.  Because of this, if a diabetic is stopped by police, he or she is unlikely to admit to carrying a syringe, which puts the officer as risk for an accidental needle-stick during a search. In fact, one study found that one in three cops gets stuck by a syringe during their career[2]. In areas where syringes have been decriminalized, the number of accidental law enforcement sticks has dropped by 66%[3]. It is difficult to argue with that kind of added safety to those who protect us every day.

Decriminalizing syringes, simply making it legal to carry a syringe, without worrying that a police officer will assume that the person with the syringe is breaking the law, would expand syringe access for diabetics and prevent many from having to re-use needles or worse, having to share them and put themselves and others at risk for HIV and hepatitis C. 

It is difficult for me to wrap my mind around the fact that providing and obtaining syringes is so difficult in North Carolina.  In the moment that I did not have a clean syringe, the desperation that I felt sparked a realization of my privilege. I am extremely lucky to have had access to clean syringes since my diagnosis of diabetes.  If I had been stopped by an officer, I could of possibly be thrown in jail for simply trying to stay alive.  The stigma surrounding the decriminalization of syringes allows us to overlook the individuals it affects.  There are so many of us that rely on syringes to survive, and yet the majority of people don’t realize the importance of access to clean syringes. Having little access to clean syringes puts too many people at risk.


S. Isaac Brock

[2] Lorentz, J., Hill, J. & Samini, B. “Occupational needle stick injuries in a metropolitan police force,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 18, 2000, p. 146–150. See also Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR), “Fact Sheet: Public Safety, Law Enforcement, and Syringe Exchange,” May 2011,

[3] Groseclose, S.L. et al., “Impact of increased legal access to needles and syringes on practices of injecting-drug users and police officers—Connecticut, 1992-1993,” Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes & Human Retrovirology, vol. 10. no. 1, 1995, p. 82–89.