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Nebraska Lawmakers Sustain Veto of Needle Exchange Bill

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Nebraska Lawmakers Sustain Veto of Needle Exchange Bill

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Nebraska seemed poised last month to become an unlikely counterpoint to the national trend of tightening drug laws. A coalition of liberal and conservative legislators in the state passed, by a wide margin, a bill to allow local governments to establish needle exchanges.

But Gov. Jim Pillen vetoed the bill, warning against bringing “the failed policies of drug-infested cities like San Francisco here,” and on Tuesday, Nebraska lawmakers changed course and narrowly sustained his veto.

The demise of the needle exchange bill reflected rising skepticism among Republicans and some Democrats about the harm reduction approach to illicit drug use. Oregon has moved this year toward re-criminalizing hard drugs, Idaho lawmakers advanced a bill that would ban needle exchanges and San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure that will require drug screening for many welfare recipients.

The debate in Nebraska, a reliably conservative state, mirrored the national conversation about how to approach drug use. Supporters of the bill spoke of the chance the bill offers to limit disease transmission and help drug users secure treatment, while Mr. Pillen, a Republican, asked lawmakers to “sustain my veto to prevent our government from aiding and abetting the use of dangerous, illicit and dehumanizing drugs.”

The governor’s pitch persuaded enough lawmakers to change their minds. Twenty-seven of Nebraska’s 49 lawmakers voted to override the veto on Tuesday, three short of the required 30 votes needed to enact a bill over Mr. Pillen’s objection. When the Legislature sent the bill to the governor last month, 30 senators voted in favor.

“For people who are still using, who are still facing addiction, whatever reason, this is a door,” said the bill’s sponsor, State Senator Megan Hunt, a political independent who used to be a Democrat. “This is an opportunity for them to get treatment for the first time.”

The bill would have allowed cities and counties in Nebraska to create programs where drug users could discard old needles and pick up clean ones, which supporters say would reduce the risk that H.I.V. or other diseases would be spread through needle sharing. Local governments would have been allowed, but not required, to set up the needle exchanges, which are sometimes called syringe service programs. The exchange sites would also have offered access to substance abuse treatment.

“I can only imagine what it’s like to be addicted, but I can tell you, if no one reaches out a hand, they’re never going to get better,” said State Senator Mike Jacobson, a Republican who supported overriding the veto.

Sheriff Aaron Hanson of Douglas County, which includes Omaha, said in an interview before the override vote that at first he was skeptical of the bill, but he came around to support it, with something of a caveat. Sheriff Hanson, a Republican, said he wanted lawmakers to pass another bill as well — one that would increase criminal penalties for people who supply drugs that cause serious injury or death.

“I think that we spend too much time arguing between the pendulum swings of harm reduction and tough on crime when we need to implement what works from both angles,” Sheriff Hanson said.

Though drugs — particularly fentanyl, which is usually not injected, and methamphetamine, which often is — are a persistent concern in Nebraska, the situation in the state compares favorably with others. In 2021, Nebraska had the country’s lowest rate of fatal drug overdoses, according to federal data. But new diagnoses of H.I.V., which can be transmitted through shared needles, have increased in Nebraska in recent years.

Opponents of Ms. Hunt’s bill questioned the message that needle exchanges would send. In a column written before the override vote, Mr. Pillen said: “The bill would enable drug use by equipping addicts with free needles. If that sounds crazy to you, let me assure you that you’re not alone.”

State Senator Kathleen Kauth, a Republican, said, “I think that enabling addiction in any way is really dangerous.”

Nebraska, whose unicameral Legislature is officially nonpartisan, would have been far from the only Republican-led state allowing needle exchanges, which studies have shown can reduce disease transmission without increasing crime. According to KFF, a nonprofit organization that tracks health data, more than 40 states had some form of a needle or syringe exchange in 2022. When Mike Pence, a Republican, was governor of Indiana, he authorized a needle exchange in 2015 amid an H.I.V. outbreak among drug users in a rural area of the state, an example that came up on the floor in Lincoln on Tuesday.

In recent years, though, as fentanyl has spread and concerns about crime and homelessness have loomed as potential political liabilities for Democrats, some coastal jurisdictions that had taken a permissive approach to drug use have backtracked.

In San Francisco, where overdose deaths have soared, voters and politicians have called for a tougher stance. City officials in Portland and their state counterparts in Oregon, who not long ago were at the vanguard of decriminalization, have moved to crack down again on drug use.

Supporters of harm reduction see criticism of such programs as a misplaced reaction to the social ills that were made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I think a lot of people are just sort of coming back and see all this public suffering around them,” said Kellen Russoniello, a senior policy counsel at the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports decriminalizing drug use. “And all that has been playing into, ‘Well, it doesn’t seem like what we have currently is working.’ And unfortunately, that energy is being channeled towards harm reduction, which is one of the things that we know is working.”

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