Last fall I traveled the country to see how communities are responding to rising heroin and opioid use, which by now has become national epidemic. I traveled through North Carolina, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. – some of the places hit hardest by heroin over the last 10 years.
This crisis is raising big questions across the country. How do we stop the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV? How can people get the addiction treatment they deserve? And how do we protect law enforcement officers from being stuck with dirty needles?
With rates of heroin use quadrupling in our state over the last five years, North Carolina, too, is now grappling with these questions. Yet the solution, proven in communities across the country, is simple. We must legalize syringe exchanges.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sharing syringes accounts for 19 percent of new HIV infections in the United States. Syringe exchange programs help reverse this figure, largely by providing drug users with sterile syringes, while collecting used, contaminated syringes. These programs also offer their clients referrals to addiction treatment and other needed social services.
Syringe exchanges fill a significant gap in our current laws. People share syringes when they can’t get new ones, due to laws – like those in North Carolina – that criminalize the possession of syringes.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but syringe exchange programs do not increase drug use. People suffering from addiction will use drugs with or without a clean syringe. What syringe exchanges do, instead, is affect how many people share syringes and how much taxpayers pay for costly diseases.
By now, the benefits of syringe exchanges are undisputable. Cities and states with syringe exchange programs have lowered the rates of new HIV infections among drug users by up to 80 percent and Hepatitis C rates by 50 percent. Legal needles also mean people are more likely to declare them to police before being searched, and less likely to discard them in public places, like parks. One study from Connecticut reported that needle-stick injuries among police decreased by 66 percent when needles were made legal.
Austin, Indiana, is a rural community where an HIV outbreak caused by needle-sharing made international headlines last year. But the county took action to reverse the local epidemic. Officials and health professionals established a syringe exchange, based in a health clinic. It’s surprising to see how routine and normal the clinic looks. Beyond exchanging syringes, the one-stop-shop clinic also provides education and connects clients to social services, food, flu shots, TB tests, and resources for employment, helping to reverse some of the struggles that come with addiction. Many people who originally visited the exchange just for needles were eventually able to seek addiction treatment. The exchange meets a real need in the community.
When I visited a needle exchange program at a large nonprofit clinic in Washington, D.C., I spoke with clients about their experience at the exchange. I told them that syringe exchanges are illegal in North Carolina. They were all shocked. “I wouldn’t be alive without this program,” said one man, who became addicted to opioids after suffering an injury at work.
So what does North Carolina need to do? Legalize syringe exchanges. Not only exchanges that can operate out of medical clinics and health departments, but those run by smaller community-based organizations with strong, trusting relationships with people who use drugs.
Criminalizing syringe exchanges punishes not just people who use drugs, but all of us. We punish ourselves with higher taxes to pay for treatment for people with HIV and Hepatitis C acquired from shared needles. And we expose our law enforcement officers and children to injury.
Syringe exchange may not be the obvious choice, but it’s the right one. It’s time for North Carolina to adopt this solution.
Kat Bawden is a a documentary photographer and video producer and lives in Carrboro.