Pubdate: Sun, 08 May 2016
Source: Press Democrat, The (Santa Rosa, CA)
Copyright: 2016 The Press Democrat
Author: Christi Warren
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


UKIAH - Mendocino County's needle exchange is reached off Highway 101 
after winding through verdant hills and past multimillion-dollar 
wineries. It's a simple two-story bungalow with white lace curtains 
on a Ukiah street where, on a recent sunny afternoon, several drug 
addicts waited to exchange used syringes.

Operated as part of the Mendocino County AIDS/Viral Hepatitis 
Network, it collected and redistributed about 127,000 needles last 
year over the course of 6,259 visits, said Libby Guthrie, the 
network's executive director.

Last year, the Ukiah exchange and similar organizations in Sonoma, 
Lake and Marin counties combined took more than 410,000 dirty 
syringes off the streets, and spent $165,500 on exchange-related 
supplies - by far their major budgetary expense.

Yet despite the lifting earlier this year of a longtime federal ban 
on funding needle exchanges, none expects to see any significant 
improvements in their budgets. That's because the ban was lifted on 
funding for rent, salaries, utilities, bookkeeping - everything 
except supplies. And for the exchanges, which operate on shoestring 
budgets and with volunteers, that means business as usual: seeking 
private donations and grants to pay for their clients' needles.

"(The government) is going to pay for a lot of things, but they're 
still not going to pay for the actual supplies, so somehow we still 
have to believe that there's something immoral about giving out 
needles," Guthrie said. "When is this actually going to affect us in 
a positive way?"

She called the government's unwillingness to pay for anything that 
could be seen as drug paraphernalia "a fear of going too far."

Needle exchanges have existed in parts of the U.S. since at least 
1988, when the Point Defiance AIDS Projects in Tacoma, Wash., became 
the first illegal exchange to come out of the shadows and garner 
widespread media attention. The first North Bay needle exchanges 
started illegally less than a decade later. California passed 
legislation in 2000 to legalize such exchanges.

The funding ban went into effect in 1988, and stayed in place largely 
due to conservative concerns that handing out needles with the 
knowledge that they would be used to inject intravenous drugs could 
increase, promote or "normalize" drug use by making it seem 
acceptable by the federal government.

The ban was briefly lifted by President Barack Obama in 2009 before 
being reinstated by a Republican-led Congress in 2012. But an opiate 
epidemic through much of the Midwest over the past two years helped 
to shift opinions on the issue among some conservative lawmakers. In 
December, a piece was tucked into a congressional omnibus bill 
partially lifting the federal ban the next month.

It's a shame, Guthrie said, the federal government has taken so long 
to acknowledge that needle exchanges deserve any funding at all.

"There's a lot of what we call moralistic idealism, like if you don't 
give someone a condom, then they won't have sex," said Guthrie, 63. 
"If you don't give them a needle, they won't shoot up.

"But the fact of the matter is they will, and they will use (needles) 
over and over and over again, and they'll share them with anyone. 
Here we are, it's 2016, and we're still fighting for it and people 
are still fighting against it."

Needle exchanges are anonymous. But North Bay organizers said the 
demographics of their users go beyond the homeless: white- and 
blue-collar workers, students, and senior citizens all use the exchanges.

The federal funding will be available through an application process. 
Guthrie said if she were granted funding, she'd hire outreach workers 
as she did a dozen years ago to do AIDS/HIV testing and exchanges in 
rural areas.

The Ukiah exchange spent about $50,000 on needles and other supplies last year.

Sonoma County's Center Point Drug Abuse Alternatives Center exchanged 
62,416 needles for 2,012 people last year. The needle program cost 
$75,000, more than half the organization's annual budget.

The Marin AIDS Project distributed 77,204 syringes during 3,078 
visits at a cost of about $12,500.

Lake County's Any Positive Change began in 1995, and still was doing 
exchanges in homes and garages until last fall, when Annina van 
Voorene and her husband bought a truck and made the operation mobile. 
Last year, the pair exchanged about 145,000 syringes over the course 
of just 267 encounters. At times, people can bring in thousands of needles.

Their 2015 budget was $38,500; of that, $28,000 was spent on supplies.

"I mean, sometimes I get real twisted when I look at all these other 
counties that have this infrastructure in place," Voorene said. "We 
can barely, barely, barely scrabble together enough money for the 
number of syringes we need."

Alisa Solberg, head of the Tacoma-based North American Syringe 
Exchange Network, heads an effort which, among many other projects, 
buys needles in bulk and sells more than 15 million of them annually 
to exchanges across the country at a low cost.

She called the availability of federal funding "bittersweet."

"Syringe exchange has been proven for so many years," she said. "We 
talk about funding research-based and research-driven innovation, but 
then we neglect funding for programs that have that kind of research 
backing, like syringe exchanges do.

"It is a step in the right direction. ... It's really important, and 
it's a victory to be celebrated. There are so many people that have 
worked to change this legislation - it took blood, sweat and tears to 
change this legislation, and their work is so valued, but it is 
bittersweet. It's just the first step, I guess."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom