This past Wednesday, August 19, Boston City Council held a hearing calling for an ordinance that would force pharmacies and other retailers of “sharps”—or disposable needles—to also provide safe and free waste sites for buyers. If the ordinance is passed, retailers would effectively take on a burden that has almost solely been held by public entities in the state. Retailers who do not comply would receive a $300 fine.
As the opioid epidemic devastates American communities—with Massachusetts, in particular, feeling its effects—other issues have begun to arise as a result. The Boston City Council found that in 2015, the city’s mobile sharps collection team amassed some 22,000 improperly disposed needles. Last year, the team—which will now be increased from two employees to four—collected 20,000 needles.
“We have needles across our city … We need help,” said City Councillor Annissa Essaibi-George, who led the hearing and sponsored the ordinance. According to Essaibi-George, the ordinance would be an effective first step in getting more support to ease some of the problems the city has seen as a result of increased rates of addiction.
“Even those that are in active addiction are interested in properly disposing of those needles, and their family members are also interested in properly disposing of those needles,” said Essaibi George.
With the current lack of proper disposal sites for needles, communities most affected by the opioid epidemic have had to solve the issue themselves. According to Stephen Fox, chair of the South End Forum, non-medical personnel such as community organizers, librarians and public officials have spent considerable energy trying to keep spaces clean and safe.
“The South End is probably ground zero of the opioid crisis in the city … We are seeing the impact of the lack of disposal sites and have had to react to it,” Fox said in the hearing. These responses, however, are not viable replacements for safer and more responsible alternatives; Fox believes retailers selling sharps need to run disposal operations as well.
Sue Sullivan, representing the Newmarket Business Association at the hearing, expressed similar support for the ordinance. Sullivan stated that in the past month, employees of her member businesses have been getting stuck. “I see thousands of needles in Newmarket every week … It’s inevitable that more and more people are getting stuck.”
There was strong opposition to the ordinance displayed at the hearing, namely from those representing the pharmacies and retailers that would be tasked with running disposal operations.
“Imagine the scenario where a heroin abuser injects and then while high on heroin goes into a busy retail establishment to dispose of a used needle and syringe,” Todd Brown, executive director of the Massachusetts Independent Pharmacists Association, wrote to Essaibi-George. “This is a prescription for disaster!”
“We believe retail pharmacies and grocery stores are not the ideal location or setting for the collection of this type of hazardous material,” said Patrick Huntington, representing Massachusetts Chain Pharmacy Council. Huntington cited one member company of his council reporting that, in San Francisco (where a similar ordinance was passed), one needle-related employee injury occurs each month as a result of handling recollected needles.
Ryan Kearney, representing the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, also voiced a dissenting opinion, stating that retailer employees are not meant to deal with the disposal of sharps.
“Retail pharmacies are not waste-disposal sites; they are not in the business of waste disposal,” Kearney said. “The average retail employee is not trained for this … The 18- or 19-year-old cashier does not know how to deal with this.”
Essaibi-George made a counterargument to Kearney, stating that employees at retail pharmacies who are trained to work with medication should also be trained in how to handle needles.
More updates on the future of the ordinance are expected within the next month.