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Everett needle exchange builds bridges to sobriety

A box of materials available to people who visit the needle exchange in Everett. (Hanna Scott/KIRO Radio)

It’s a sunny day in north Everett and a parking lot off Marine View Drive is nearly full. Inside the building, Cheri Speelman is running a syringe exchange.

“People bring us their dirty or their used syringes and we exchange back with them however many they have. It’s pretty much need-based. They just have to have syringes to exchange,” Speelman said.”

If drug users are holding on to their used needles and turning them in, those dirty needles aren’t showing up in parks and schools or being found by family members.

Speelman has worked with the AIDS Outreach Project/Snohomish County Syringe Exchange for 22 years. The organization operates exchanges all over the county on different days. The north Everett location is open Thursday’s from 2-7 p.m.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, there was a line of people out the door waiting to turn in their used needles.

Inside, at the counter, Speelman and a colleague greet “clients” with a smile and create a friendly, comfortable environment that’s relaxed and welcoming.

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Drug users who come to the counter are offered a 10-pack of clean needles, but they must turn in at least one used needle.

It doesn’t stop there. The exchange also offers small cottons that are used as filters, aluminum cookers, alcohol wipes to clean the skin and prevent infection, and tourniquets for better vein care. Everyone gets a bottle of water to avoid the spread of hepatitis and other illness from people using needles that soak in the same bottle.

The goal is harm reduction — a term we often hear when we’re talking about safe injection sites. This is not an injection site, rather a place to get supplies for safe use and education about everything from how to take care of yourself when you are addicted and injecting drugs, how not to spread disease, and how to take care of your veins.

There is absolutely no judgment.

“We don’t care what you’re using,” Speelman said. “We care how you’re using and that you’re using and if you want to slow down or quit or do something different then talk to us because we can have a resource, or we can help make phone calls or maybe you need a ride to someplace and we can figure that out.”

That turned out to be what happened to a drug user who came to the exchange for the first time that day. After getting all the supplies she needed at the counter, she asked if they help people get into detox. Speelman explained they can help figure out how the best path moving forward. In this case, all it took is a ride to a detox facility in Port Angeles.

The drug user — who did not want to be named — began using drugs as a teen and then got clean for eight years. She says she started using again after her brother killed himself and has struggled ever since.

“Yeah, I keep a job, full time. My managers, they have suspicions, but they weren’t ever able to prove it and, of course, I’m going to lie to them and tell them no, I don’t. So, they were never able to catch me because I’m not ignorant and I don’t do it at work…[I] do it before and after and I’ve been able to maintain a job for years.”

She hopes to be clean a year from now but knows it could be a challenge. Her wife uses, too.

And she’s afraid both of getting clean and of not getting clean.

“Sometimes I get scared ‘cause of being sick. But, like I said, if I could find a ride to the detox place, I would love to be able to get clean again because I’ve been hiding it from my parents. If they knew, they wouldn’t speak to me. They have suspicions but they can’t prove it. I know that if I tell them my mom would just flip and not speak to me.”

As for Speelman, she sees her work as providing a bridge to help drug users stuck in addiction on the one side eventually cross that bridge and get to the other side — sobriety.

But is it enabling?

“To a certain extent. It’s true we’re enabling people not to contract HIV, we’re enabling people to take better care of their bodies than they could otherwise,” Speelman said. “We’re enabling people to get some education about how to do things differently to get a different result. We’re enabling people to have access to the bridge. To have people on their side say, hey, I’m here [and] I believe in you whenever you’re ready to do something different we’re here. Until then let’s just take care of you.”

But Speelman does not believe they enable people to continue to use. That’s something she says they’re going to do anyway until they’re ready. And the key to that, she says, is teaching them to take care of themselves so they have some self-worth.

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