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It is no secret that opioid use is on the rise in communities across the country. Illegal substance abuse in rural, urban, and suburban homes that may have begun with a prescribed pain killer is now being affected by a national tightening of opioid-based pharmaceuticals. The unfortunate collateral damage has resulted in an epidemic of “pill to needle” drug users.
According to the Keck School of Medicine of USC:
“The prescription opioid epidemic is creating a heroin epidemic, which will create an injection drug use epidemic…I predict we’ll see an uptick in injection-related diseases over the next couple of years due to the more rapid transition to injection and its impact to the prescription opioid-to-heroin use phenomenon”.
Advocates have weighed the benefits and risks of needle exchange programs in curbing HIV and Hepatitis C infections; as an opportunity to get drug dependent persons the help and care they need; and to provide an opportunity to transition these persons into treatment.
Pros of Needle Exchange Programs
The Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy has praised needle exchange programs for its ability to reduce new infections and to create a point of contact for transitioning drug addicts into drug treatment programs. There are approximately 200 needle exchange programs in 33 states that offer this support. The centers have strict rules and do not allow drug use within the proximity of the site and old needles must be exchanged for sterile ones.
Some areas provide access to sterile needles through syringe services programs (SSPs) such as pharmacies that do not require a prescription or with a prescription through health care agencies. These programs are often established as part of an integrated approach to combat rising HIV infections and to reduce the spread of the Hepatitis C virus. Other benefits of needle exchange programs include:
- Can drastically reduce the exchange of contaminated needles
- Many needle exchange centers offer free HIV testing and drug counseling
- Reduces sexual-risks and other drug-related behaviors
- Reduces infections caused by accidental needle sticks to first responders
- Provides a local place for community support groups and other service providers
- Can assist those seeking drug rehabilitation with resources and contact information
Critics Against Needle Exchange Programs
Other opponents of needle exchange programs believe that access to needles without a prescription will only increase the rates of suburban and urban drug use. Other reasons why some experts oppose needle exchange programs include:
- May enable continued drug use
- Financial costs to taxpayers
- May still increase infection rates
- Increasing the number of injection drug users
- Puts more needles in the community
- Promotes crime near needle exchange sites
- Low access to rural injection drug users