An impassioned group of former drug users met with County Commissioner Randy Ross on Tuesday, Feb. 18, to discuss their objections to the syringe exchange program in Aberdeen.
Grays Harbor resident Roger Nedrow organized a visit between Ross and about 12 former addicts. Nedrow is a member of a church in Aberdeen where the former users meet to help in their recovery.
“We need to get some perspective from the people who have lived this life,” Nedrow told Ross. Nedrow spoke to the the former users and encouraged them to meet with Ross to offer firsthand tellings of overcoming drug addiction.
Ross listened intently as the Grays Harbor residents shared their stories.
“I used to be a heroin needle user. I did my last shot of heroin Feb. 2, 2013,” one former user told Ross. “I think the needle exchange, while it is well-intentioned, I think it’s a bad mistake for the county and for Aberdeen because when I was going to high school in the ’90s, it was very taboo to use intravenous drugs, to inject drugs. It was a very taboo subject. … Now kids in the high school and even junior high, it was shown to be safe and clean now. A safer, cleaner way to do the drug. So instead of being taboo, it was socially acceptable.”
Other people expressed concerns that an exchange makes syringes a commodity to be traded.
“I lost my son to a heroin overdose 20 years ago,” one woman said. “My point in this is I think anything that makes it easier for an addict to get a hold of a needle, he will do it. As a former addict myself, I know that they’re very manipulative and creative and if they can make a profit from having a needle, they will.”
Ross stressed that the purpose of the purpose of providing the syringes — which are provided by the federal government — is to reduce the spread of diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis C, associated with intravenous drug use.
“The whole purpose is that we don’t have an epidemic at our hospital,” Ross said.
“What was the ultimate decision that made you decide, ‘I don’t want this anymore’?” Ross asked. “That’s what we’re trying to get people to, to keep them alive to that point.”
He added that the county’s Public Health and Social Services Department is looking at how it can expand services to help get people off drugs. But the overwhelming body of science states that syringe exchange programs do work.
The Vidette reached out to the county Public Health department to define the science behind advocating for a needle exchange.
“It’s natural to look at two things happening and think that there is cause and effect. But there’s a really strong body of research that’s been going on for 30-plus years that multiple studies have failed to demonstrate that the presence of a syringe services program increases drug use,” Public Health Director Karolyn Holden said. “It does not encourage people to use drugs. The fact that a clean syringe is available isn’t going to make someone more likely to want to inject a drug, just as someone who has a substance use disorder is going to inject whether they have a clean syringe or not. Those two things are both true.”
Holden shared studies that back up her assertions that syringe exchange programs reduce the spread of HIV and help increase enrollment in drug treatment while not promoting substance abuse. The document she shared is available on The Vidette’s website (www.thevidette.com) with this story.
“I helped start this program in 2004. …,” Holden said. “I think that with the worsening opioid crisis and worsening homeless problem, it’s become so much more visible and so distressing to people that it’s natural to see those happening and believe that somehow the syringe services program is attracting homeless people. But there’s no evidence for it.”