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Are needle exchanges making the opioid health crisis worse?


In Washington, needle exchanges first began sparsely showing up in the late 80s, and they’ve very gradually been adopted by a few cities around the state. But the few that exist have recently received pushback from local politicians challenging their usefulness, and suggesting they may be making the problem worse.

According to The Seattle Times, numerous public officials around Washington believe needle exchanges are exacerbating the opioid crisis, with discarded needles appearing in streets and public parks.

“May I speak wildly and without any sort of factual scientific references?” asked KIRO Radio’s John Curley. “Society sort of sets up barriers and blockades and lanes that you’re supposed to drive in. Does society saying to somebody, ‘Hey here’s a needle. We won’t ask you to get tested. We won’t ask you to get into treatment.’ Does it in any way passively allow the person to feel like society is somewhat condoning this action?”

At present, 39 states have needle exchanges and there are at least 27 programs in the state of Washington, though locally they’ve faced the same criticism as everywhere else. The Tri-Cities evicted a location, one in Grays Harbor is hinging on a tight vote by county commissioners, and in Cowlitz County another was defunded, though continued privately. Public officials told The Seattle Times they’re worried about this apparent shift.

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“I think that could be one of the takeaways that could be part of it depending on the person’s bidding on circumstances,” said co-host Feliks Banel. “But it’s also facing the reality that treating substance abuse is really challenging for these highly-addictive substances. It’s challenging if a person is mainstream and has a place to live and has a job and has a family supporting them. It’s almost impossible if the person is solo and homeless.”

Approximately eight million needles were exchanged in King County in 2018. For Curley, the fine line is between potentially enabling substance abuse and actually getting users to take real steps.

“I did see a study come out of Sweden that said of the people that go in there, like only two or three percent actually go into the other room and seek some sort of additional help to be able to try to break the cycle,” Curley said. “What they’re afraid of if you go there to the needle exchange is someone’s going to grab you and make you get better.”

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“I don’t want anyone to be a drug addict,” added Feliks, “and I don’t want any of those drug addicts — who as you describe have no control over the kind of decision making — to get exposed to HIV or hepatitis or something just because they’re an addict … I think it’s one of these things where the problem is so rampant, it’s so far upstream in terms of the opioid manufacturers that it should be addressed on a federal level, because every community rural and urban has issues related to drug abuse.”

Listen to the Tom and Curley Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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