Point of View

A life-saving yet illegal syringe program

July 2, 2013 

A pastor operating an illegal syringe exchange program is not something that is considered normal. A pastor operating an illegal syringe exchange program in the South is unheard of and dangerous by all accounts.

Yet, over the past six years, I have distributed over 1,500 syringes to drug users in my community.

It is usually late in the evening when I get the phone call.

In earlier years, the phone calls traded genteel generalities that are common among Southern acquaintances.

These days, the phone calls are for a short acknowledgment of a need and an emotional push for me to head out into the night.

As I hop into my truck, I check to make sure that I have everything. Alcohol pads. Check. Tourniquet. Check. Syringes. Cotton filter. Sterile water. HIV test. Pregnancy test. Harm Reduction kit. Condoms. Check. And finally, my standard set of brochures, contacts and information.

The meetings are generally pretty quick with a hand-off of supplies and a quick health check of everyone who happens to be around.

After a rash of deaths in the small community known as The Devil’s Triangle, I make it a point to hug everyone and tell them that I love them while silently praying, “Lord please let them live for another week.”

Why would someone give drug users syringes? And why would a pastor ever consider being involved in such a thing? My answer is usually very simple: In order to save a soul, a community needs to save a life.

And in order to save a life, we have to understand the issues.

The complexity of what North Carolina faces is entirely sobering.

As of 2012, the rate of new HIV infections in our state was 41 percent higher than the national rate. Nearly one quarter of AIDS cases diagnosed in adolescents are due to injection drug use – one of the highest rates in the country.

In the context of race, HIV in North Carolina disproportionately affects African-Americans. Though African-Americans comprise 21 percent of the state population, they represent 61 percent of HIV cases transmitted by injection drug use.

With a growing national trend of people transitioning from using prescription painkillers to injection drug use, North Carolina is seeing a tidal wave of overdose-related deaths that is also higher than the national average. While those statistics are frightening, they should force us to expand syringe access programs or at least change the way we think about them.

Syringe-access programs provide so much more than syringes and address more issues than just drug addiction.

We provide HIV and hepatitis C testing along with referrals to care. We educate and provide overdose prevention training as well as links to drug treatment programs. We offer support and guidance to people who have lost all hope. And we are not alone in our understanding that something has to change.

Recent surveys indicate that 84 percent of North Carolina law enforcement members support syringe decriminalization, which removes syringes from the list of illegal drug paraphernalia. More than two-thirds agree that it would make communities safer.

Research also shows that when states decriminalize syringes, accidental law enforcement needle sticks decrease by more than two-thirds when injection drug users are no longer afraid to admit that they are carrying them.

Decades of evidence show that syringe-access programs do not increase drug use, and that they are an important way to get people in the door to begin conversations about their health. By preventing HIV and hepatitis transmission, syringe-access programs also save money by decreasing emergency room visits, the dependence on a lifetime of antiretroviral treatments and expensive organ transplants.

Our own N.C. legislators recently passed a landmark overdose-prevention law, which shows strong support for these lifesaving measures. But that is not enough, and it cannot be the end to all that we do, as a community, for those who so desperately need help.

The federal budget does not currently allow syringe-access programs to be funded under disease prevention.

We need that to change before more lives are lost from drug overdose, before more lives are destroyed from a ravaging incurable disease and before we lose a generation of young people who do not have access to the simplest of resources.

Remember, in order to save a soul, a community needs to save a life first.

The Rev. James Sizemore is senior pastor and executive director at Catalyst Community Church and Catalyst Community Development Corporation in Fayetteville.

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