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ST. LOUIS — Privately run needle and syringe exchange programs for drug abusers aimed at preventing hepatitis C and other communicable diseases could be legalized in the city under a bill introduced Friday at the Board of Aldermen.

The measure would cover such efforts if they are part of a proposed city health department pilot program also aimed at getting drug abusers into treatment for their addiction.

“This is a way of providing a clean alternative to the dirty syringes to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases,” said the sponsor, Alderman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward. “But it’s also a way of creating that point of intervention.”

Now, needle trade programs in the city and elsewhere in Missouri operate in a legal gray area. Distributing and possessing needles used for intravenous drug use is illegal, but police often overlook it when tied to such programs.

Aaron Laxton, who has helped run the Missouri SAFE Project and its syringe exchange program in St. Louis since 2016, said the organization refers 50 people a month to drug treatment programs.

“Everyone knows we exist,” he said, noting that his group already works with the city. However, he said, “there’s no legal protection” from potential prosecution for violating drug paraphernalia laws.

He called the bill “a good step in the right direction” and said he believed aldermanic passage could help press the Missouri Legislature to pass a similar statewide bill. Efforts in recent years to do that have failed in Jefferson City.

Spencer worked with city health officials on her measure, which would authorize the health department to contract with exchange programs that agree to follow city requirements and treatment goals and to be monitored by the city.

“We would be working with them in terms of what they’re measuring,” said Craig Schmid, a health department official and a former alderman. Schmid was defeated for reelection by Spencer in 2015, but the two are working together on this issue.

Schmid said there are no plans now to put any city money into the needle exchanges.

The bill directs city police to recognize that the programs aren’t aimed at encouraging or condoning illegal drug use but exist to reduce the spread of infectious diseases.

Thus, the bill says, needles and syringes distributed in such programs shall not be considered drug paraphernalia under city ordinances. Such items still would be illegal under state law.

Also Friday:

Ban on conversion therapy proposed

• Alderman Christine Ingrassia, D-6th Ward, introduced a bill to ban medical and mental health care providers from trying to change the sexual orientation of LGBTQIA youths under 18 years old.

Violators of the proposed law could face a fine of as much as $500 or up to 90 days in jail or both.

The ban on so-called gay conversion therapy would be similar to one passed last month in Columbia, Missouri. The City Council in Kansas City also is considering such a bill. Statewide laws have been passed in more than a dozen states, including Illinois.

The American Psychological Association opposes the therapy, saying it doesn’t work and can cause harm.

Snag on Build-A-Bear move?

• Ingrassia also introduced a bill to repeal tax breaks approved in July for Build-A-Bear Workshop to move its headquarters to a building at 415 South 18th Street near Union Station.

She said she did so to prod the company to respond to her inquiries about allegations by unions that it wasn’t adhering to commitments she said it made to hire union workers or to pay the prevailing wage on renovation work at the building.

She also said the firm hasn’t provided city development officials with its contractor’s plans for adhering to rules on minority- and women-owned business participation in the work.

Build-A-Bear representatives could not be reached for comment. Otis Williams, director of the city’s top development agency, said his office would look into the issue.

Includes reporting from the Associated Press.

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