Drug users fear consequences of syringe exchange ending

With Grays Harbor County’s syringe exchange potentially ending June 30, the program and the county commission’s decision to end it has been a hot topic. Many health officials want to keep it, while two of the three county commissioners have said it’s not appropriate for the county to fund it.

Among the drug users who actually rely on the local syringe exchange to turn in used needles in exchange for clean ones, some fear there will be dire consequences for the health and wellbeing of both drug users and the wider community if the program ends.

“We’re going to have needles in our parks, and really everywhere if it ends,” said Rickey Kelly, who was exchanging 190 needles for three of his friends last week. “No one’s going to care, and it’s a sad shame. The epidemic is going to go sky high, spreading diseases around people.”

The syringe exchange has existed since 2004, and aims to reduce the spread of diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV, which can be spread when needles are reused or shared. The program is run by the county health department out of a motorhome, once a week under the Chehalis River Bridge near downtown Aberdeen. In total for 2018, it’s estimated around 940,000 needles were exchanged.

The Daily World spoke with a half-dozen people who were turning in hundreds of used syringes at the exchange last week about what they think would happen if the program ended. One unanimous prediction was that more needles would be found around town because there would be no easy, safe place to dispose of them. They also worried it would result in more diseases as a result of dirty needles being used.

Other questions, like how drug users would get clean syringes without the exchange, drew more varied responses. Some said they would take the bus to Olympia for its syringe exchange, while others said they might just reuse the needles they already have.

“I would continue to use old ones of mine; I don’t know how I’d get new ones,” said Jeff Simmons, 54, who was turning in 227 needles for himself and three others.

Simmons added that before the syringe exchange, there were more people using contaminated needles, and said he has noticed fewer people doing that since.

“I used to live on the river and I know we’d go around saying, ‘Hey you have any dirties you’re not using?’” said Simmons. “We’d sterilize them with bleach. When the syringe exchange started, that got cut way down.”

Most of the people interviewed at the syringe exchange said they take between three and five shots of heroin each day, with a couple saying they used more, including one who said they used between five and 10.

Some local stores include needles among the behind-the-counter medical supplies they sell, but a couple syringe exchange users said those often are difficult to use because the needles are much shorter, such as those intended for insulin.

“From doing heroin so many years, I don’t have many veins left,” said Dustin Pearson, 37. “A lot of the store-bought needles are too tiny to reach veins. We either don’t have veins, or the ones we do have to use are really deep, so we have to use a longer needle.”

The age range of people who use the syringe exchange is fairly wide, with everyone from 20-somethings to elderly people using the service, and most coming from Aberdeen or Hoquiam, along with some from elsewhere in the county.

A few interviewed at the syringe exchange said they are trying to get clean, but it has been difficult, finding themselves slipping back into drug use soon after getting out of treatment.

“I’ve been to substance abuse treatment before, and they work for a while. But I get out, get around the same stuff, and fall back into it every time,” said a 20-year-old who added he’s used heroin for about three years.

The man wished to remain anonymous, but said he graduated from Aberdeen High School. He added that he does see a link between people becoming homeless after getting hooked on drugs.

“People start using drugs, and they don’t want to get up for work, or they can’t go to work without drugs,” he said. “To each his own, I like that I can hold down a job.”

In the interviews, most said they’ve been using drugs since they were fairly young, and a few said they fell into using heroin after getting hooked on opioid pills.

When people arrive at the exchange, they dump the used needles in a disposal bin, and tell workers from Grays Harbor County Health and Social Services how many they’re exchanging for.

The employee eyeballs the amount dumped in the bucket, and either OKs it or tells them that’s not the amount they brought.

Along with the syringes, the service provides other supplies, such as antibiotic cream, tourniquets, metal cookers for drugs, bandages, condoms, and the overdose reversal medicine naloxone. The naloxone distribution and trainings, which are funded by a University of Washington grant and tied to the needle exchange. The grant would go away if the syringe exchange did.

Commissioner Wes Cormier, who proposed the resolution to end the syringe exchange, said he thought it was “unfortunate that the UW would tie training and funding for a life-saving drug to the needle exchange program.”

Cormier added that he thinks if local governments feel strongly about programs like naloxone, fire districts could approach the University of Washington to find alternative delivery models for naloxone, or seek other funding avenues.

“In general, if local governments feel strongly about something, then the elected officials will likely give it funding priority,” wrote Cormier in an email. “Many jurisdictions fund life-saving (naloxone) for police and fire.”

Part of the issue Cormier has cited with the exchange is that he believes it’s wrong for the county to be distributing syringes that are on people when they later get arrested for drug possession charges.

Commissioner Randy Ross has said the service has merit and should continue. Commissioner Vickie Raines agreed with Cormier at the Dec. 18 commissioner meeting that she doesn’t think the county should be providing the syringe exchange, but does want to find an outside agency to run it.

At a January board of health meeting, Raines said the naloxone program being tied to the syringe exchange makes a big difference to her, and that she didn’t realize that aspect when she voted in December. The commissioners have been meeting with the health department to consider future options for the program.

(Louis Krauss | Grays Harbor News Group) Jeff Simmons stands outside of the syringe exchange motorhome in downtown Aberdeen after discarding some needles.

(Louis Krauss | Grays Harbor News Group) Jeff Simmons stands outside of the syringe exchange motorhome in downtown Aberdeen after discarding some needles.