At the top of the year, it will no longer be a felony to knowingly expose a sexual partner to HIV in the state of California.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation on Friday which put the law, which passed the California Legislature in September, into effect.
Previously, knowingly exposing someone to HIV was a crime punishable by up to eight years in prison. This new legislation will lower jail time to a maximum of six months, CNN reports. The new law also reduces the penalty for knowingly donating HIV-infected blood from a felony to a misdemeanor.
“Today California took a major step toward treating HIV as a public health issue instead of treating people living with HIV as criminals,” said Sen. Scott Wiener, one of the co-authors of the bill, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Although this new law seems counterproductive to public health to some, AIDS activists and advocates have been fighting for the decriminalization of HIV exposure for years, including the Black AIDS Institute, one of the black community’s leading HIV and AIDS advocacy groups.
“Stigma is a critical barrier to ending the AIDS epidemic and decriminalization is an important step in fighting stigma,” Phill Wilson, CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, said to The Root. “People are not going to get tested and they’re not going to disclose and they’re not going to seek treatment in an environment where HIV is criminalized, and so this new law is extremely important in efforts to end the AIDS epidemic in California.
“If we really want to prevent HIV infection, then getting people treatment is not only the best, it’s really the only way for us to protect people,” Wilson added.
CNN reports that Republicans in the California Legislature were staunchly opposed to the passage of S.B. 239, saying that it could lead to an increase in HIV infections.
Republican Sen. Jeff Stone, a pharmacist, said that 3 out of 4 people who are on prescription medication in the United States do not comply with their doctor’s orders on how to take it.
“If you don’t take your AIDS medications and you allow for some virus to duplicate and show a presence, then you are able to transmit that disease to an unknowing partner,” Stone said on the Senate floor in opposition.
Sen. Joel Anderson, another Republican who voted against the bill, said it was irresponsible not to disclose the possibility of a life-altering infection.
“The critical word in this is ‘intentionally,’” Anderson said in September. “When you intentionally put others at risk, you should have responsibility.”
But Wilson said that the story needs to be about “where we are in the HIV epidemic.”
“This is 2017; it’s not 1986,” he said. “And today we have extremely effective biomedical prevention tools. Today we have protections against transmissions of HIV. We also have the ability to stop the acquisition of HIV through PrEP. We know that if people have optimal treatment, and they’re undetectable, they can’t transmit the virus.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that African Americans represent more than one-third (40 percent) of all people living with HIV (pdf) and almost half (45 percent in 2015) of all people with newly diagnosed infections. Black gay and bisexual men are the most affected, followed by black heterosexual women.