Heroin users injecting doubt into needle exchange issue
LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - At the same time they're arresting people in heroin busts in Scott County, they are handing out free syringes to heroin users at a building next door to the police department. Sometimes the users shoot up right across the street.
It's called a needle exchange because intravenous drug users are supposed to exchange used syringes for clean ones to reduce the spread of disease. But it looks more like a needle supply.
I went undercover for five weeks watching needle exchanges in Scott County, IN and Jefferson County, KY where heroin users often are lined up waiting for it to open.
They bring in their children, their bikes and their dogs, but most of the time they don't bring any needles to exchange.
"I even noticed over time, repeat customers still not bringing needles with them. Your thoughts?" I asked Metro Health Department Director Dr. Sarah Moyer.
"To me, it's more important to get them the clean needles to prevent sharing," Moyer said.
Often I recorded customers walking out and doling out bags of syringes to people waiting nearby. One of the frequent customers who never brings needles to exchange walked out and took off on a 20 minute drive to where a man was waiting on a scooter. He pulled something out of his mouth and made a hand-to-hand transaction.
When I caught up with the van driver heading out with his passengers, he didn't want to talk about it.
"I take people to work and drop 'em off," he said.
"Why do you keep going to the needle exchange?" I asked.
"Needle exchange?" he said as he drove away.
How long do they wait before they're using their taxpayer funded syringes? Twenty-two seconds after one woman left with bags full of needles, a syringe was passed and one of the people in the waiting car used the needle at the front entrance of the UofL School of Public Health.
I recorded two people who brought no needles but walked away with many to a spot across from the main entrance to the Louisville Free Public Library, where one was the lookout while the other shot up and left a syringe behind.
One woman went straight to a nearby business, shot up, left the stuff on the floor by a wastebasket, and then had to sit down outside because she was having a hard time.
Another man walked a block away, sat down along busy Broadway, unpacked his syringe, gloves and gauze, took off his sock and took his time sticking the needle between his toes with kids walking by and people staring.
"I haven't seen that here," said Moyer, "but I guess you gave an example for Broadway. They're going to be using. I'm happy they're using a clean needle. That's my thought."
So what are they using? Health department stats show it's mostly heroin, but also meth and cocaine.
We've been told needle exchanges offer counseling and treatment to try to stop the cycle of addiction. So we sent a producer inside undercover with a hidden camera. A needle exchange worker read him his rights off a form.
"How many do you think you need to last you a week?" asked the worker.
She also asked how often he uses drugs. "How many times a day are you using?" she asked.
"I'd rather not talk about it," our producer told her.
"You have to so I know how many needles to give you," she said.
Seconds later he was on his way, needles in hand.
"All the worker did was just read this form, didn't offer any counseling, didn't ask any questions to try to get the person into a treatment center or anything," I said to Dr. Moyer.
"You've got to meet the person where they're at," Moyer said. "So if they're not ready for treatment there's not really, you don't need to talk about it."
What the worker did do was explain if you tell a police officer you have needles from this exchange, you won't be charged with possessing drug paraphernalia or any substance on the needle.
"Police officers are on board if they pull you over," the worker said.
"It comes off sounding like you're helping a person using drugs to not get busted by police," I said.
"As long as they're not sharing needles, and (they're) preventing disease, I think that's probably a good thing," Moyer replied.
"That's tragic," Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers said. "Theory and practical application are two different things. The theory is a good theory. Practical application by these people is really abhorrent."
When we shared our findings with Stivers, he said changes are necessary now.
"They're not taking needles out of the system. They are just supplying more needles," Stivers said. "This was not the intent of the legislation. They're doing nothing but promoting greater use of heroin."
The Metro Health Department says it's had more than 1,000 people come in to get free needles in the first four months the needle exchange has existed. They say 64 of those drug users have been referred to Seven County Services case managers for treatment options.
As for Stivers' comment that the needle exchange workers are promoting greater use of heroin, Moyer said, "Study after study shows syringe exchange programs do not increase drug use."
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