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Are Needle Exchange Programs a Good Idea?

Are Needle Exchange Programs a Good Idea?

Author: Justin Mckibben

Some would suggest that it is complicity, while others would call it an extremely dangerous design for enabling addicts, but Harm Reduction advocates and those in support of progressive drug policy change would insist that needle exchange programs are a huge help in keeping active addicts alive and as healthy as possible.

Although healthy is a relative term in these cases I guess…

According to decades of research needle exchange programs prevent disease, do not increase drug use in effective areas, and actually have been said to influence addicts into getting drug addiction treatment.

So is needle exchange a good idea?

The Status in the States

All over America needle exchange programs are legal in 35 states but according to the North American Syringe Exchange Network, out of all 50 states there are only 228 facilities actively operating.

Last year the state of Indiana was facing a devastating HIV outbreak in a rural area that had next to no experience with the disease. This sudden and profound problem pushed Republican Governor Mike Pence to legalize needle exchange programs as a response to a public health emergency.

In Massachusetts there has been a consistent decline of new HIV cases, but an increase in injecting-drug use has led to a spike in hepatitis C infections among people aged 15 to 29. In 2007 there were 1,901 new cases in 2007, and that jumped to 2,421 in 2013.

Surprisingly, Governor Charlie Baker’s Opioid Working Group made 65 recommendations to combat opioid abuse… and needle exchange was not one of them. However when asked, Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, the working group’s co-chairwoman, said Massachusetts does support needle exchange programs.

Sadly, many contest that there is not enough support for these programs. Stigma still exists in many areas that prohibit the expansion of these programs, and even among those in the recovery community who are themselves recovering from addiction there is debate over if needle exchange programs are acceptable.

Innovation in Ireland

Across the Atlantic Ocean in Ireland the harm reduction movement recently saw a major victory, becoming one of the many countries around the world using more progressive strategies to combat opiate abuse.

Due to a recent flood of heroin overdoses in the area, the Irish government has officially approved a pilot program for a supervised injection facility (SIF) to open in Dublin. Along with needle exchange programs, supervised injection facilities are one of those more open-minded methods of harm reduction that provide safe and sterile injection equipment to addicts, along with a safe location to use, typically with medical staff on stand-by in case of overdose.

During a presentation in front of cabinet members, the Health Research Board of Ireland showed statistics where:

  • 387 people died in 2013 due to drug poisoning
  • 1 in 5 of these deaths was caused by heroin use

Following the decision the Minister in charge of the National Drugs Strategy, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, gave a fervent speech on behalf of overdose prevention, sharing his delight that the government had taken on a more compassionate approach to dealing with drug abuse. He stated:

“These facilities can help in harm reduction and alleviate some of the complex needs of a vulnerable and hard to reach group. They are not the only solution to addressing drug addiction but will play a significant role in reducing street injecting and drug related deaths.”

Much like what has been seen in most American needle exchange programs, the safe injection sites are said to not only be a way to help prevent disease as a result of drug abuse, but can also promote drug addiction treatment.

Opinion on the Option

Now, I’m going to just ask this question again… and then I legitimately hope some people take some time to read, research and discuss this topic… are needle exchange programs a good idea?

Now of course, being an addict in recovery and knowing what it took me to get clean and sober, I can be honest and say I didn’t always support these programs. However, over time as I have read more about harm reduction and the logic behind the programs they advocate I have come to understand why these programs are important… they save lives.

At the end of the day, they save lives and that is the point. Needle exchange programs are not meant to serve as long-term recovery plans or to promote drug abuse. These programs actually do everything they can to help inspire addicts to seek out real comprehensive drug addiction treatment programs. They exist to prevent the spread of dangerous and deadly infectious diseases, to prevent overdose deaths and other drug related injuries, and to provide resources and opportunities to addicts who don’t know about the help that is out there.

Sure these programs aren’t a definite solution, but they preserve life for those unwilling to get clean.

Some would say they just give addicts an excuse, but any addict will tell you WE DON’T NEED ONE! We will use either way. At least with safe injection sites and needle exchange programs there is a chance we may live long enough to get the kind of holistic healing we need to truly change our lives.

Sounds like a good idea to me.

Needle exchange programs are just one resource out there that are meant to help people who desperately need effective treatment stay alive long enough to find a way to recover. Real recovery and real solutions start when you find a recovery plan that works for you.  

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