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Nebraska lawmakers fail to override needle exchange bill veto

Nebraska state lawmakers failed to override Gov. Jim Pillen’s (R) veto of a needle exchange program on Tuesday, killing a bill that initially passed the unicameral legislature with vast bipartisan support and signaling a trend in how states respond to the opioid epidemic.

The needle exchange bill — introduced by state Sen. Megan Hunt (I) — passed the Nebraska Legislature 30-7 earlier this year, but the vote to override Pillen’s veto failed 27-20 on Tuesday, narrowly falling short of the 30 votes needed to overturn it.

Pillen argued that a needle exchange program would bring “the failed policies of drug-infested cities like San Francisco” to Nebraska. Supporters accused legislators who flipped their votes of playing politics instead of voting based on the policy itself.

“That speaks for itself on what’s really going on here,” state Sen. Danielle Conrad (D) said, The Associated Press reported.

Seven Republican lawmakers flipped their votes to support the veto, including one lawmaker — state Sen. Jana Hughes (R) — who had recently praised the bill and denounced Pillen’s veto.

“Governor Pillen cited the fact in his veto statements that Nebraska had the lowest opioid overdose rate in the country,” Hughes said in a social media post last week. 

“While that is good news for Nebraska relative to other states, that is a bit like saying you are the last person to jump out of the plane without a parachute,” she continued. “Ignoring a problem does not make it go away.”

Multiple states have stepped back on harm-reduction approaches to the opioid epidemic in recent months. Oregon legislators passed a bill to roll back its drug decriminalization program earlier this month, following criticism of its effectiveness, while Idaho lawmakers moved forward with a bill that would outright ban needle exchanges in the state.

Needle exchange programs are common in most states and held up by addiction treatment experts and health-care providers as a key method to slow the spread of blood diseases like HIV. The exchanges allow drug users to turn in used needles to get new, clean ones, preventing the dangers of reusing them.

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