Pubdate: Mon, 25 Nov 2013
Source: Bellingham Herald (WA)
Copyright: 2013 Bellingham Herald
Author: Jeremy Pawloski


One of the most visible signs of heroin's resurgence in Olympia is 
the increase in dirty, discarded needles being found downtown.

In August, the city's Parks and Recreation Department began keeping 
statistics on discarded needles left in public parks. As of 
mid-October, the tally was 269.

One way to deal with discarded needles - as well as potentially help 
their users - is exchanges that trade new syringes for old ones. In 
Thurston County, the Syringe Exchange Program distributes free 
needles to IV drug users in downtown Olympia.

Advocates say the exchange is an essential part of a "harm-reduction 
strategy" that keeps users from contracting or spreading communicable 
diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

Needle exchanges also are an important point of contact for treatment 
providers to meet with and encourage IV drug users to seek help, 
advocates said.

Supporters say they do not believe the needles the exchange 
distributes end up discarded in public places, because the facility 
gives fresh needles only in exchange for dirty ones.

Olympia police officer Jeff Herbig doesn't see it that way and says 
the county should rethink its policy.

"We are in a situation where there are a lot of heroin-addicted folks 
who are in a community that makes it very easy to be an IV drug 
user," said Herbig, the city's downtown bicycle patrol officer.

"I recognize the importance or the medical necessity for drug users 
to have access to clean needles, but right now the needle exchange is 
providing a clean windshield for a drunk driver."

The exchange program, with an annual budget of just more than 
$200,000, has been in place in Olympia since 1993. It is managed by 
the county's Chemical Dependency Program, which along with the state 
Department of Health, partially funds it.

The exchange is open at its downtown office 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays, and 
noon-5 p.m. Thursdays. A "mobile exchange" distributes needles in 
rural areas of the county as needed 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays.

The IV drug users who use the exchange include many people who are 
employed and not living on the streets, said Dr. Diana Yu, Thurston 
County's health officer.

"I watch some people exchanging that I would never have thought would 
be needle drug users," she said. "The reality is you have to have 
money to be able to afford to buy drugs."

Mason and Lewis counties do not have needle exchange programs, so 
people who live there also likely use Thurston's exchange, Yu said.

"It's not the cause of the problem," Yu said of the needle exchange. 
"It's one of the pieces in the solution."

Chris Johnson's job is to be on the streets every day, trying to get 
the indigent and homeless into drug or alcohol treatment. The 
county's intensive case manager for co-occuring disorders, Johnson is 
an employee of Northwest Resources, a chemical dependency treatment 
center in Olympia.

The needle exchange, he said, is a great resource for staying in 
contact with IV drug users. It helps him determine whether they're 
healthy and helps him try to recruit them into treatment.

Johnson recruited 120 people into treatment services last year. One 
out of every seven clients he helped was recruited from the needle exchange.

During the past five years, the Thurston program has seen the number 
of used needles being exchanged increase by 2 percent to 5 percent 
each year, said Joe Avalos, manager of the Thurston and Mason County 
Chemical Dependency Program.

The number of dirty needles the exchange takes from users is larger 
than the number of clean needles it distributes, he added.

In 2012, the exchange program collected 950,000 used syringes, and 
provided about 914,000 clean ones, Avalos said. For the first six 
months of 2013, it collected more than 600,000 used syringes, handing 
out more than 570,000 syringes.

Studies show needle-exchange programs do not cause an increase in 
dirty needles being discarded in public places, said Caleb 
Banta-Green, a research scientist at the University of Washington's 
Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute.

"Syringe exchanges do not cause people to be using drugs," he added. 
"They provide the necessary supplies to keep people from reusing or 
sharing syringes and needles. This prevents infectious diseases, 
abscesses, other medical problems and death."

Research shows syringe exchanges save lives and are cost effective, he added.

Herbig, the downtown patrol officer, isn't convinced.

During a recent patrol, he was called out to collect a discarded 
needle in a planter at Drees, a downtown home furnishing store.

He said employees watering the planter could easily have been stuck 
by the needle, if they weren't paying attention to where they placed 
their hands.

"The needle exchange is well-intentioned, and could very well be 
beneficial," Herbig said, "but as it is now, we have a bunch of 
unintended victims and community impacts."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom