State of the Debate: Probing the Needle Exchange Question

Should cities establish needle exchange programs to encourage those using drugs to avoid sharing needles?

Should cities establish needle exchange programs to encourage those using drugs to avoid sharing needles? What about the use of safe injection locations throughout cities? There is a significant amount of debate about whether these programs are beneficial and who should pay for them. Perhaps the best way to understand their outcome is to take a closer look at both the pros and cons of such programs to uncover what may really be happening.

What the Research Says

The use of a syringe exchange program, or SEP, has been shown to offer some benefits in various scenarios. According to a study published through the U.S. National Library of Medicine, these programs are effective at reducing HIV transmission rates among those who inject drugs. However, many people worry that these programs encourage the continued abuse of drugs. Some believe they could be undesirable within communities. What’s the truth?

Understanding the Risks

Needle exchange programs do not specifically target treating people with addiction. Rather, their specific goal is to address the ongoing spread of life-threatening conditions such as hepatitis C and HIV. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among all people diagnosed with HIV, 9 percent of them inject drugs. Additionally, injected drugs are responsible for the 150 percent increase in acute hepatitis C infections that occurred in 2016.

What Are the Benefits of SEPs?

There are several key benefits of implementing needle exchange programs in communities. Among them are the following.

Reducing Needles in the Community

Why its so difficult to implement needle exchange programsSafe injection points create areas where people can go to use needles in a safe and sterile environment without repercussions. They also facilitate a safe place to dispose of those products. Otherwise, they can end up in public locations. The New York Post reported in May 2018 that over 5,000 used needles are collected from Bronx parks every week; many of these could carry infections. As a result, safe injection sites create safer environments for all people.

They Connect Addicts with Community Programs

Many of these needle exchange programs take place within community social service programs. This provides an opportunity for a person who is using drugs to interact with and potentially gain access to the support they need to stop using. Though there isn’t a strong push towards requiring them to use these services, knowing that free testing, diagnostic services, and even treatment services are available can be a motivating factor to getting clean.

Reduces Drug-Related and Sexual-Risk Behavior in the Community

People who have a physical dependency towards a drug will do anything they can to gain access to it. This often creates high-risk scenarios for those people but also the community as a whole, including drug-related behaviors such as stealing and overdosing in parks. It also reduces the amount of sexual-risk behavior present, such as using sexual trafficking to support an addiction.

They Create Educational Opportunities

By implanting these programs in all communities, it’s possible for individuals to gain access to educational materials and supportive guidance. This may include accessing prevention services for the next generation. It may also include helping children and teens to understand the risks of drug use, even if their parents have an addiction.

It Creates Protection for Support Networks

Many men and women who use drugs have families that are involved in the drug lifestyle as well, often isolated from the support and care they need for health, education and mental well-being. These programs put families in a position to get help from other support networks. This may help prevent the spread of disease, and it also ensures children receive the services they need.

What Are the Cons of SEPs?

It’s true, these programs work. However, there are some negative perspectives about them that some people may have trouble overcoming. Among them are the following:

They Enable the Use of Illicit Drugs

How people have a negative view of needle exchange programsFrom a treatment perspective, we understand that drug users cannot simply stop using. Yet the prospect of giving someone the equipment they need to do a destructive act is understandably, difficult to accept. Providing access to free needles can be considered enabling the continuation of this abuse. More so, providing an area for injection of illicit substances can be seen as a violation of the law. In some cases, this may seem to increase the amount of illicit drug use happening in communities. Without an in-depth knowledge of the community and the results to back it up, it seems counterintuitive that this has a net-positive gain.

Needle Exchange Locations Don’t Provide Treatment

To be clear, these locations may offer a safe place to use drugs, but they don’t provide ongoing substance use disorder treatment. This is perhaps the most important disadvantage. They cannot force people who need help to get it. They also cannot provide support for complications such as HIV or other diseases present. While they may offer referrals to services, people are not walking into a treatment center for help.

They Introduce Contaminated Needles into the Community

The use of needle injection sites like this does concentrate the number of needles being used to a smaller area. This is positive in that they are less spread out, but may be viewed as a negative by neighbors of the safe location. It can lead to more drug use in their neighborhood. If something were to change with the SEP, there are fears that the community may remain in their neighborhood. This is similar to the paradox that more people should simply adopt children but when it comes to you well I couldn’t possibly adopt children, I meant someone else.

There Is a Cost

It’s important to note that these programs must be paid for by someone. Whether the funds come from government programs or nonprofit organizations, there is a cost. More so, many communities simply don’t want the presence of such programs in their area for fear of reducing home values or creating unsafe communities for families. This “cost” of the program is often seen as a deterrent for programs in affluent communities, though drug use in those areas may still be significant.

What You Should Do — Seeking Help from FHE Health

If you’re looking for a needle exchange program, it is likely an indication that you need help. If you or a close family member is using drugs and needs to rely on these programs, it’s time to seek help. FHE Health offers comprehensive programs to address and treat the underlying causes of addiction.

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