By Hunter Hines
Christian Action League
August 7, 2019
Friday, July 12th, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation making it easier for drug addicts to get needles and syringes for their habit. Governor Roy Cooper signed the bill, HB 325 – Opioid Epidemic Response Act, on Monday, July 22nd.
A response to the state’s Opioid epidemic, the measure removed restrictions on the use of State funds to purchase needles, hypodermic syringes, and other injection supplies to be provided to addicts freely at taxpayer expense.
Needle exchange programs are a controversial harm reduction approach to drug addiction. Proponents note that the problems associated with the opioid epidemic are substantially exacerbated when the transmission of blood-borne viruses are widely spread by injection drug use. The utilization of drugs such as heroin, crystal meth, and cocaine are facilitated through drug injection, and addiction to these drugs often causes people to make unhealthy decisions, such as sharing dirty needles.
Needle exchange programs are not about treating addiction, although some do provide counseling services and referrals to treatment providers. Instead, they are primarily about reducing drug overdoses, while also preventing and lessening the transmission of deadly diseases such as
Hepatitis C and HIV. The objective is to offer a means for addicts to exchange old needles and syringes for new ones, while also providing advice on safer injection practices and ways to avoid and manage an overdose.
Critics of needle exchange programs, however, say such approaches to drug addiction and their effectiveness in reducing harms aren’t sure.
One study lead by Stephen Davis, an assistant professor at the West Virginia University School of Public Health, published in the Harm Reduction Journal in 2017, concluded the impact of needle exchange programs “remains unclear.”
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Davis said, “‘From an empirical standpoint we can’t know how effective they are in reducing Hepatitis C,’… Some of the studies reviewed found the programs were helpful; others showed they might be harmful, he said. Studies examining the ability of such programs to reduce HIV infections show a stronger correlation.”
Critics also say needle exchange programs, sometimes referred to as “syringe exchange,” make matters worse. It’s argued they enable current drug use, increase injection drug use, and scatter used and discarded needles throughout the community. The discarded needles pose serious public health hazards for children, law enforcement officers who have to frisk suspects, and other public employees, especially garbage collectors.
Furthermore, critics object to needle exchange programs because they often increase crimes near exchange sites.
Especially grievous to many citizens is that the dangers precipitated by needle exchange programs are being funded with tax dollars.
Last year, the Asheville Citizen-Times, reported that Asheville, North Carolina, had taken numerous complaints “from nearby schools, businesses, and neighboring residents about public safety concerns,” related to their needle exchange programs.
Cathy Ball, who was Interim City Manager at that time, said in a letter to the community “that residents had found hypodermic needles littered on neighboring properties and that people had seen intravenous drug use in public. She added that there had also been an increase in calls to the Asheville Police Department.”
The New York Times did a story in April of last year about Charleston, West Virginia’s closing of its needle exchange program, only after a little more than two years in operation. Danny Jones, the city’s mayor at the time, said it was a “mini-mall for junkies and drug dealers” that drew “crime into the city, flooding the streets with syringes.”
There was a news account of a 5-year old girl in Charleston who was accidentally stuck with an uncapped syringe in a McDonald’s bathroom. The city was described by one local TV news segment as buried in “Needles Everywhere.”
Jones, an alcoholic, said he understood recovery. “I’m in it myself, and I believe in it. But I don’t believe we have to destroy a city over it,” he said.
In April of this year, the Orange County Register reported several cities in Orange County were suing the state of California over needle exchange programs because they were causing deleterious effects on their communities.
Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said he thought needle exchange programs might provide some positive results, but overall he believes they are the wrong way to address the Opioid problem.
“I think the main defect with such methods is that we are treating addicts as though they have little or no control over what’s happening to them. We are ingraining within them, and society at large, a victimization mentality. I’ll grant you that drug addiction is a form of slavery, but as such, it’s a slavery to which someone willingly submits. Worse still, such schemes give people the impression certain types of irresponsible behaviors are devoid of any moral content. That’s just what the druggie wants to believe about himself, and he wants us to believe it too. It’s a way of avoiding responsibility. He wants to avoid moral accountability. It’s always the fault of someone else or his unfortunate circumstances. That approach is as old as Adam blaming Eve for his eating of the forbidden fruit, and it doesn’t help. Despite all the good intentions, I think needle exchange programs mostly facilitate drug-related harms, and more often than not only make matters worse.”
Creech added the Christian Action League did not actively oppose HB 325 this year because the organization was inundated with alcohol and gambling measures which had to take priority. Nevertheless, he said that he was most disappointed in the broad support for the bill by Republican lawmakers.
“I think it’s a grievous error on the part of our Republican friends, who typically side with conservative evangelicals on social issues, to sponsor and support such initiatives,” said Creech. “I think it’s likely to backfire on them, particularly when these ill-advised programs produce problems in our cities.”
A June 2018 edition of Preventive Medicine shows that public support for needle exchange is low, only about 39 percent, which is a decrease from 58 percent in 2000.
But like it or not, HB 325 is now the law in North Carolina.