Needle Exchange was legalised in New Zealand through the introduction of the Health (Needles and Syringes) Regulations 1987 which decriminalised the sale of needles and syringes to Injecting Drug Users (IDUs) provided their sale was part of the Needle Exchange Programme. Unfortunately the possession of injecting equipment was not decriminalised at the same time. However the regulations provide a defense against charges under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
The 2005 Misuse of Drugs Amendment has seen the defence from the Health [Needles & Syringes] Regualtions 1998 inserted into Section 13  [aa] of the MDA. Additionally the onus of proof has been reversed so that the Police have to prove [beyond reasonable doubt] that the Needles/ Syringes did not come from the Needle Exchange Programme.
The New Zealand NEP was the first national Needle Exchange Programme in the world and was originally conceived as a pharmacy and general practitioner based scheme, and initially more than 200 pharmacies were recruited as outlets. In order to provide peer based educational support to the NEP a number of Drug User Groups were formed and contracted to provide complementary educational programmes. The groups decided that they would also provide after-hours needle exchange services at evenings and weekends to complement pharmacy outlets.
Current Issues in Needle Exchange
Historically, because of the policy of charging for injection equipment, most IDUs re-use them many times and sales within the NEP remained at a consistently low level for many years. Anecdotal evidence and comparative studies have shown that needles and syringes are re-used between 7 and 10 times before being discarded or returned for destruction.As in most weternised countries prevalence of Hepatitis C infection amongst IDUs is high in New Zealand with an estimated 60-70% of current IDUs already infected. Awareness within the drug using community of hepatitis C infection levels has brought home to many IDUs the dangers of reusing injection equipment. As a result of this, needle exchange sales have grown more rapidly since 1994 as users move towards the single use of injection equipment. This trend has had a marked effect in decreasing the reuse and sharing of needles and syringes.
The proportion of used needles and syringes returned for destruction has improved from a national average of 26 percent of sales in 1994, to 52.9% of sales in 2000. Since the advent of free 141 distribution [unlimited] the return rate has risen considerably to around 90%.
The New Zealand Needle Exchange Programme has to date been extremely successful at preventing the spread of HIV amongst IDUs. In 1996 less than 50 people who had confirmed HIV infections stated that they had a history of injecting drug use.
New Zealand currently enjoys one of the the lowest rate of HIV infection amongst drug users in the OECD, at 0.5% of injecting drug users infected1.
1(Brunton C, Henderson C, McKay S. 2004 Seroprevalence Study, HIV, HCV, HBV Amongst Needle Exchange Attendees. Report to the NZ Ministry of Health)
Currently there are about 180 pharmacy & alternate based outlets and 18 peer based needle exchanges [including mobile] participating in the Programme
As of 2006, national distribution of injecting equipment exceeded 2 million units [per annum].
Since the advent of free one-for-one distribution in 2004, national distribution has effectively doubled from a figure of a little over 1 million*.
*Source: Availability Report 2006, C Henderson NENZ/ NEST (Report prepared for the Ministry of Health)