OGDEN — Plans to launch a needle-exchange program in Ogden for drug users have been put on hold, at least temporarily, due to questions and concerns from local law enforcement leaders.
The program has been in the works since earlier this year and organizers, led by the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, had scheduled the first needle exchange for last Friday.
“They were ready to go,” said Heather Bush, viral hepatitis and syringe exchange coordinator for the Utah Department of Health.
After local health officials started spreading the word, though, leaders from the Weber County Sheriffs Department and Ogden Police Department came forward to express opposition. They worry such a program, geared to intravenous users of heroin, opioids and other drugs, will encourage continued use of such substances, among other things.
“They think crime will go up, there will be an increase in homelessness, there will be an increase in public disorderliness,” said Mindy Vincent, executive director of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition.
Now, Vincent is hoping to arrange a meeting with local law enforcement officials to discuss their worries. Either way, she still plans to implement a syringe-exchange program, aimed at minimizing the spread of disease. She hopes to have it up and running by the end of April.
“It will go forward in Ogden,” said Vincent, who helped launch a twice-weekly needle-exchange program in Salt Lake City last December. “We just decided to pause, talk with (law enforcement officials), address their concerns and then we’ll move forward.”
Lt. Danielle Coryle of the Ogden Police Department said the situation is “under review.” A Weber County Sheriff’s Department representative didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
Preventing HIV, Hepatitis C
That the notion of a needle-exchange program would generate opposition isn’t a surprise to Vincent or Bush. Giving needles to drug users would seemingly condone continued use of illegal substances even as law enforcement officials are trying to halt such activity.
“I totally get that,” Bush said. But she said that stats show they help, over time.
The most immediate aim of such initiatives is to get drug users to use clean needles, thus preventing the spread of Hepatitis C and the HIV virus. It doesn’t stop there, though, proponents say.
Drug users experience rejection, can feel shame, guilt and a sense of being judged. When someone offers help via needle-exchange programs, expresses compassion, it can help point them in a different direction.
“You’re not telling them, ‘You’re bad for using drugs.’ We’re telling them, ‘We want you to be healthy,’” Bush said. “It’s meeting them where they are.”
Such contact can move drug users “along that continuum,” lead to reduced drug use, participation in methadone programs, drug counseling and more. It’s more viable than trying to “jerk” drug users immediately to the “other side of the continuum,” abstention from drugs, Bush said.
High rate of drug deaths
Despite any reservations or hesitation law enforcement officials may have, 2016 state legislation allows for creation of syringe-exchange programs in Utah.
“What we’re doing is the law. They can’t tell us we can’t do it,” Vincent said.
Still, they aim to work with law enforcement officials. At the very least, Vincent hopes for a “place of neutrality” with authorities, a commitment from them not to target participants and volunteers involved in any needle-exchange effort.
Either way, both Bush and Vincent sense the need for a program.
Vincent pointed to Utah Department of Health data that shows that downtown Ogden had the third-highest rate of drug deaths for 2013-2015 in the state, 47.7 per 100,000 population. That’s behind only Carbon and Emery counties, top on the list, and the Glendale section of Salt Lake City.
Statewide, the rate of drug deaths was 23.4 per 100,000 people, around 65 percent of the total stemming from use of opioids, which includes heroin.
A needle-exchange program here wouldn’t lack takers “because there is a problem in Ogden and many other areas,” Bush said.
Aside from Salt Lake City, a needle-exchange program has been implemented in Tooele County and more are planned for Carbon and Wasatch counties.