Pubdate: Sat, 02 May 2015
Source: Alaska Dispatch News (AK)
Copyright: 2015 Alaska Dispatch Publishing
Note: Anchorage Daily News until July '14
Author: Zaz Hollander
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


WASILLA -- A different kind of blight is emerging from heroin use in 
the Valley: discarded hypodermic needles littering roadsides, parks 
and waterways from Butte to Houston.

Valley residents say they find syringes without trying -- at a school 
bus stop in Big Lake, riding horses in Houston, in the sand next to 
Wasilla Lake.

Houston Fire Capt. Christian Hartley found 30 needles in a stretch of 
road near a gravel pit just off the Parks Highway in April. Last 
year, most of the hypodermics turned up along the Parks Highway -- 
maybe users just threw them out vehicle windows, he said -- but this 
year most cluster along King Arthur Drive, Houston's busiest artery.

One resident brought in a Mason jar filled with 30 used hypodermics.

"It's very much a shame, very much unfortunate," Hartley said. "It's 
equally unfortunate that the people that are leaving the needles 
don't have the compassion or concern to think about the public when 
they're doing this."

Used needles pose a risk for injury to people and pets and can spread 
disease, including tetanus, hepatitis B or C and staph infections, 
authorities say.

The proliferation of discarded hypodermics is spurring one 
Wasilla-based public health nurse to push for a needle exchange 
program in the Mat-Su, where there currently is none.

Exchange solution?

The Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association -- an Anchorage nonprofit 
known as the 4As -- runs a needle exchange in Anchorage and one in 
Juneau. The Interior AIDS Association runs one in Fairbanks. Clients 
drop off used needles for safe disposal and get clean ones and other 
equipment -- tourniquets, cotton, alcohol pads -- as well as general 
health information.

In the last fiscal year, the Anchorage and Juneau exchanges accepted 
more than 232,000 used needles, according to Rebecca Morrissey, the 
group's HIV prevention and education coordinator.They gave out more 
than 226,000. So far in the fiscal year ending in June, the two 
programs have taken in more than 290,000.

"There are people who travel in from the Mat-Su Valley to get needles 
from us because there's no options for them out there," Morrissey said.

That's where Michelle Rountree, a registered nurse who works at the 
Mat-Su Public Health Center, comes into the picture. Rountree hopes 
to start a needle exchange in the Valley.

An exchange could protect drug users from diseases, but it could also 
cut down on needle dumps like those in the Valley area, Rountree said.

"It gives the needle user some accountability to their needles so 
they're less likely to dump them," she said. "Most of these groups, 
they don't want to use dirty needles. They actually want to take care 
of themselves -- I know that sounds a little contradictory but they do."

Morrissey recommended supporters of a Mat-Su exchange start looking 
for nonprofit grant sources or private donors since federal funding 
for needles exchanges is prohibited.

"I think a needle exchange out there would be fantastic," she said.

 From South America to Sutton

The Valley, like other urban and rural communities around Alaska, is 
grappling with widespread heroin use and the thefts and burglaries 
that public safety officials often link to the drug or others. Heroin 
is a highly addictive drug derived from morphine that's obtained from 
the opium poppy.

Statewide, heroin accounted for the highest total street value of 
drugs seized at nearly $12 million, according to a state drug report for 2014.

Alaska State Troopers say just last week they found a 35-year-old man 
sleeping in his 1977 Toyota Celica along the Parks Highway in Meadow 
Lakes with $5,400 worth of heroin and methamphetamine inside. He drew 
their attention because he'd dropped off his girlfriend on the side 
of the highway after they fought. Somebody reported the woman walking 
along the road in her underwear -- she was actually wearing short 
shorts -- and a trooper found the man. Troopers arrested the man on 
drug charges.

Alaska's heroin comes from South America, troopers spokeswoman Beth 
Ipsen said. It makes its way into the state via parcels and body 
carries, according to the report. Troopers actually seized less 
heroin last year -- about 22 pounds compared to 55 the year before -- 
but logged more charges or arrests: 209 compared to 151.

Ipsen said no data was immediately available as to the share of the 
state's heroin activity happening in the Valley.

Wasilla police seized 13 grams of heroin worth about $5,000 last 
year, according to the state drug report. Palmer is seeing a definite 
increase in heroin use. Police Chief Lance Ketterling said there are 
low-level dealers in Palmer but suspects the bigger dealers are in Anchorage.

It's possible a proliferation of "one-hit" needles could be adding to 
the discard piles. In Palmer, officers "encounter used hypodermics 
normally in people's pockets," he said. "Sometimes we notice they're 
being sold with single doses of what appears to be heroin in the needle."

Putting together the puzzle

The borough landfill deals with hypodermics all the time, officials 
there say. The borough's community cleanup coordinator handles 
reports of dumped needles as part of her 1,000-hour on-call position.

She's found needles all over the Valley: several places in Wasilla 
including off Bogard and Knik-Goose Bay roads; Garten Road and Beaver 
Lake Road in Big Lake; and in Houston near Hawk Lane last year during 
an annual cleanup.The coordinator carries sharps containers specially 
made to hold needles safely, then disposes of them via a contractor 
who picks them up at the landfill.

Rountree says a needle exchange would help solve the discarded 
hypodermic problem. Meanwhile, she's working with Hartley of the fire 
department in Houston to produce a flier to educate the public, 
especially with the local spring cleanup about to start like many 
others in Mat-Su. They're also trying to get smaller sharps 
containers to give out.

Basics for safe handling of used needles include wearing gloves, 
picking up needles with a tool (like a set of pliers), placing 
needles into a sharps container for disposal at an authorized 
location, and washing hands. Never put loose needles or other sharps 
into household trash or public garbage cans and don't flush them down 
the toilet, the flier warns.

She calls the flier part of a larger puzzle that someday could 
include an exchange.

Rountree expects community pushback against a needle exchange over 
typical complaints like the programs enable drug use. The 
alternative, she said, is exposing IV drug users to the risk of what 
recently happened in rural Indiana, where an HIV outbreak is linked 
to syringe-sharing partners injecting a prescription opioid that so 
far involves 135 people.

And it means continuing to expose the public to used needles, 
Rountree said. She said she hopes to educate the public that a needle 
exchange actually enables people "to protect themselves and their 
community. It's a transformational process in their thinking."

Anyone within Houston city limits who finds discarded needles can 
mark their location and then call the fire department at 907-892-6457 
and firefighters will come pick them up, provided they're in a public 
area. For more information about needle safety, call the Mat-Su 
Public Health Center at 907-352-6600.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom