Should needle-exchange programs be part of Indiana’s fight against opioid abuse?
About two months ago, I found a syringe in my front yard, which is one block from a high school. More recently, I spotted three nails in the street in front of my house, where my family and I park our cars. While the syringe was disturbing, the nails were more dangerous. Every year in the United States, hundreds of people die and thousands more are injured as a result of tire failure. Yet there has never been a documented case of someone contracting HIV from a discarded syringe, and there have been very few cases of hepatitis C transmission.
I did not like finding a dirty needle in my yard, but the experience only reinforced my support for syringe exchange, which saves lives and money and should be available statewide.
As a result of the 2015 HIV outbreak in Scott County, the Legislature legalized syringe exchange, but only if initiated at the local level and approved by the state. This cumbersome and politically difficult process has limited the number and effectiveness of syringe exchange programs, which this year have undergone a coordinated assault by the attorney general and county prosecutors, who argue they facilitate and encourage illegal drug use.
After Scott County became the first to implement syringe exchange, eight others followed. The backlash has caused two to end their programs, and others are struggling. Last month, Lawrence County terminated its program after a year, even though it had been credited with a sharp reduction in new hepatitis C infections and was supported by health experts. Bowing to pressure from the prosecutor, the county commissioners allowed the program to die.
More than three decades of research overwhelmingly supports syringe exchange. SEPs can play a critical role in reducing transmission of HIV and hepatitis C, while also providing a host of other benefits, including increased participation in drug treatment; prevention activities; and other medical, mental health and social services.
Syringe exchange is a harm-reduction measure: Its primary purpose is preventing the spread of disease. Contrary to the prosecutors’ deadly rhetoric, reducing drug use is a proven secondary benefit. In addition, syringe exchange also saves money. Compared to the cost of treating HIV or hepatitis C, clean needles are cheap.
As soon as syringe exchange started in Scott County, the rapid spread of HIV stopped, and syringe exchange is essential for preventing something similar from happening elsewhere. Looking at hepatitis C as an indicator of risk for HIV, many other Indiana counties are ripe for an HIV outbreak.
Solving the opioid crisis will require time and unprecedented resources. In the meantime, syringe exchange should be available throughout Indiana as one of many effective tools for combating and mitigating the effects of injection drug use.
We can’t arrest our way out of this. Most people in jail or prison for drug-related crimes should be in treatment rather than behind bars. Addiction is a disease, and it is no more the fault of the individual than diabetes, heart disease, cancer or other illnesses.
Used syringes will continue to turn up in yards and parks, on playgrounds and in public restrooms and other places. Syringe exchange can help keep everyone safer. Right now, sharp rhetoric is the killer.•
Clere is a Republican member of the Indiana House from New Albany, representing District 72. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.