Tuesday , September 05, 2017 - 4:00 AM
On Sunday, Aug. 27, the Standard Examiner Editorial Board published an editorial titled, “Needle exchange program gives Ogden drug users a chance to survive.” The tone of the article was that the mayor of Ogden and I had been obstructing the establishment of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition’s needle exchange program and that the program was now being established “despite the best efforts of local law enforcement.” Nothing could be further from the truth. In actuality, the Ogden Police Department facilitated the establishment of the needle-exchange program which will now be potentially saving lives in Ogden and Weber County.
In April, the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition announced it was initiating a needle-exchange program in Harrisville. Members had not spoken with residents, city or law enforcement officials, and so received immediate resistance. As a result, Sheriff Terry Thompson invited the UHRC and Executive Director Mindy Vincent to speak to the Weber/Morgan Chief’s and Sheriff’s Association’s monthly meeting. When Vincent and members of Weber Human Services presented their program, including the items which would be provided to clients during the needle exchange, it was immediately apparent the additional contents of the “kit” being supplied violated Utah law.
Utah Code, 58-37a-5(1)(a) and (b), are quite clear, “It is unlawful to use, or to possess with the intent to use, drug paraphernalia to … inject, ingest, inhale or otherwise introduce a controlled substance into the human body in violation of this chapter,” and doing so constitutes a Class B misdemeanor. Sections 5(2)(a) an(b) are also quite clear, “It is unlawful for any person to deliver, possess with intent to deliver, … any drug paraphernalia, knowing that the drug paraphernalia will be used to … inject, ingest, inhale, or otherwise introduce a controlled substance into the human body in violation of this act,” and to do so is a Class A misdemeanor.
In the 2016 legislative session, the Legislature passed UCA 26-7-8, the Utah Health Promotion and Risk Reduction Syringe Exchange and Education Act, which became effective on May 5th, 2016. The law provides for “syringe exchange and education” and states in paragraph (2), “an entity operating a syringe exchange program in this state shall: (a) facilitate the exchange of an individual’s used syringe for one or more new syringes in sealed sterile packages (italics added). Nowhere in the law does it provide for additional intravenous drug use paraphernalia to be distributed.
Additionally, in 58-37a-5(a), the Legislature carved out an exception as a result of the syringe exchange legislation, “A person may not be charged with distribution of hypodermic syringes as drug paraphernalia if at the time of sale or distribution the syringes are in a sealed sterile package and are for a legitimate medical purpose, including: … (ii) the prevention of disease transmission.” The Legislature did not carve out an exception for the additional paraphernalia contained in the kits. It was the Weber County attorney’s opinion that the delivery of the syringes was within the scope of the law and was clearly what the Legislature intended, but that the possession and delivery of the other items by the UHRC constituted a violation of the law. Not only was the UHRC violating the law but it was causing its clients to violate the law.
The other primary issue was the location the UHRC wanted to use for the exchange program. It was in primarily residential central Ogden within a few blocks of schools, churches, and parks. This area has been the focus of extensive policing efforts directed at attempting to change not only the occurrence of crime but the perception of criminality in the area. The reality of needle-exchange programs is that they draw a variety of questionable persons and activities to the area where they are held.
The goal was to find a location to bring this program to Ogden but which did not result in negative effects. When Ogden Police Department staff met again with Vincent and representatives of Weber Human Services on July 25, Vincent agreed to only a syringe exchange, but again asked for the location to be the one in central Ogden. I told her we could not place it there and police staff offered a suggestion for partnering with Metamorphosis, where the program will now open. We also discussed how we could work together to ensure that the program would be successful without some of the deleterious effects found in other cities.
Contrary to the editorial by the Standard Examiner’s Editorial Board, the Ogden Police Department and Ogden city administration, including Mayor Caldwell, did not obstruct the opening of a much-needed needle-exchange program, we facilitated it. As a result, the Utah Harm Reductions Coalition’s program is in the right place, is partnered with an excellent program that offers intravenous drug users the opportunity to defeat their addiction, is delivering only items in keeping with the law, and is ensuring the greater Ogden community and its citizens are not going to suffer unnecessary consequences.
Randy Watt is chief of the Ogden Police Department.
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