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Is It Illegal to Possess a Syringe?

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on August 24, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The short answer is maybe, and it is incredibly complicated.

There is no federal law prohibiting the possession of syringes. It is all state law. About five states don't have drug paraphernalia (DP) laws, and about 10 exclude syringes from this list. That leaves about 30+ states that do have syringe laws. And this is where it gets complicated.

In a state that has DP laws, and a syringe is included as DP, is it always illegal to possess one? The answer is, it depends. If someone has a prescription for an injectable drug (ID), such as insulin, or for the syringe itself, it is not illegal. But what about those that don't? There are only two legal ways to possess a syringe in this case: from an exchange program or retail sale.

Syringes From Exchange Programs

There are about 18 state-wide legal syringe exchange programs, and about four other states that have limited exchange programs (usually by county). The concept here was that, unfortunately, if an addict wants to inject, laws or lack of a clean needle is not going to stop them.

Dirty needles can spread blood-borne disease, and though addicts may know this, if they are desperate, they will use a dirty needle anyway. In an effort to decrease the spread of blood-borne illnesses, such as Hepatitis C and HIV, government sponsored agencies have set up these needle exchange programs. The concept is that it is the lesser of two evils. These programs stand a better chance of keeping the general public safer from the spread of blood-borne illnesses perpetuated by dirty-syringe drug users than outlawing syringes outright.

Can I Legally Buy a Syringe?

What about buying a syringe? About half of the states allow for purchase of a syringe with no prescription for either the syringe or ID. In all other states except for two, there are no laws specifically prohibiting it, but no law allowing it either. (You take your chances!) And in two states, Delaware and Tennessee, the law specifically prohibits retail sale of syringes without a prescription. (Note, however, that Tennessee does have a needle exchange program in three cities: Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville.)

So if you are in Delaware, and you have a syringe, you better have a prescription for it.

Unfortunately the legality of syringes is a complicated issues because at the heart of it is the issue of criminalizing addiction. No one uses a syringe as a preferred method of drug ingestion. Injected recreational drugs are highly addictive, and if someone is tempted to use old or dirty needles, risking their life, they need help, not necessarily a criminal record.

Syringe possession laws are misdemeanors -- not a huge crime, but a crime nonetheless. For some people, it is a very big deal to have even a misdemeanor on your record, most notable for immigration and employment issues. If you are facing a syringe charge, think about the long term consequences of having this on your record. Your situation may be a viable exception, but you probably need the help of a criminal defense attorney to find out. That is, unless you are in Delaware.

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