With roughly 1,000 opioid overdoses per day and an increase in death, infectious, and communicable diseases, some states are beginning to take drastic measures in response to the opioid epidemic. The country is taking a vast range of approaches toward this crisis. Some states are taking a hardline “just say no” approach, including Florida. But other states, like Nevada, are making headlines for their increasingly popular and often controversial approach: harm reduction.
Needle exchange programs, or NEPs, are one of the founding pillars of the harm reduction ideology. They started in Europe with the explosion of HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s. The logic is: if users reduce the risk of harmful behavior it will also reduce the cost to society (health costs, deaths, spread of disease, etc.). Since the 80’s, this trend has spread across Europe, Canada, and more recently, the United States. More states are adopting this model because of the nearly instantaneous benefits. The National Institutes of Health found that NEP’s reduced risky behavior among drug users as much as 80%. In addition to this, it is estimated that NEP participants are five times more likely to seek treatment for their addiction. So, it is no question why states like Nevada are expanding these tactics
Needle exchange programs are not simply needle-fairies, but rather complex networks of healthcare workers and community volunteers. They offer a safe haven to those who are often cast out by society. They are made up of individuals who lobby government to increase funding to addiction treatment. Often, needle exchange operators are even recovered addicts themselves who want to give back to their community. It is inevitable that these programs will spread and they hopefully will be our answer to this opioid epidemic.
Nevada will be the first state to adopt a “syringe vending machine.” Yes, literally, like a soda vending machine, except it’s free. Participants of the Trac-B program, operated by the Las Vegas Harm Reduction Center, will receive an ID card or personal pin number that they enter into the machine. The machine then dispenses a box that contains syringes, alcohol wipes, safe sex supplies, and a disposal box. This will give clean supplies and an avenue for safe disposal for thousands of addicts.
Dr. Joe Iser, Chief Health Officer of the Southern Nevada Health District stated, “Providing clean needles and supplies is a proven method for limiting disease transmission in a community.” In the past decade opioid use has doubled, and an estimated 45% of young people who use IV drugs have the hepatitis C virus. These programs are saving lives and cleaning up communities. In 2002, it was estimated that NEPs removed more than 25 million used syringes from communities. This number has doubled since then. Last year, Congress ended a ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs. The move was made partially in response to the highly publicized 2015 HIV crisis that hit a tiny county in rural Indiana — where nearly 200 people were diagnosed with HIV.
The United States is not the first country to adopt these vending machines. Europe, Australia, and Puerto Rico are already seeing the benefits of these programs. Canada has even adopted a crack-pipe vending machine to combat the health problems associated with crack cocaine use. Addicts often have very little health coverage or none at all. When injuries and diseases are prevented, it saves the public money.
So Why do Some States “Just Say No” to Harm Reduction?
In the United States, the War on Drugs was founded on the ideology of “just say no” and “hard on crime.” The country has spent trillions of dollars since the beginning of this war and many are still dedicated to its cause. Many people do not understand addiction as a disease, but rather as a crime. They believe people should be punished for drug use and dealers should be put in jail for life. This is an idea that is hard to shake. Many politicians often preach this rhetoric and suggest that NEPs enable drug users to continue doing drugs. This claim, though popular, is simply false.
The benefits of harm reduction practices are overwhelmingly proven. The apprehension revolving around harm reduction stems from a misunderstanding of addiction. Many non-drug users believe addicts choose addiction and are unwilling to get help. The fact is, addiction is a disease that needs professional medical help, just like any other illness.
Many IV drug users are afraid to ask for help and live in the shadows of society. They hide from the stigma and judgment that surrounds addiction. Needle exchange programs bring users out from the shadows and show them that there is hope. It shows users that society does care about their well-being, and that they are worth being saved. This is why so many needle exchange participants later ask for help. Many NEPs even offer paths to recovery, detox, and treatment programs.
Getting Help at Wayside House
If you are a woman struggling with addiction and mental health issues, Wayside House can help. We offer a women-only program and provide a safe, supportive environment to recover in. We have outstanding treatments and therapies that are often only found in more expensive programs. We offer inpatient rehab with various therapies, relapse prevention education, outpatient, and aftercare, as well as services for medical professionals and veterans. Contact Wayside House at 800-655-0817 to learn more.