OGDEN — Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt understands the passion motivating the advocates pushing for a local needle-exchange program geared to heroin, meth and other drug users.
“They are wonderful, compassionate, well-meaning people,” Watt said.
The Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, the Utah Department of Health and other groups have been pressing for a clean-needle program here to help illicit intravenous drug users, similar to a program launched last December in Salt Lake City. They aim to limit the spread of diseases, most notably Hepatitis C and the HIV virus.
But the notion of handing out needles and, more significantly, other paraphernalia used by IV drug users, like cookers for heating and dissolving drugs, worries Watt and many others in Ogden and Weber County. It’s spurred a fierce, if civil, debate about the sort of help drug addicts should get and concerns — opposition, even — from many in law enforcement.
“It’s not coming here in its present form,” Watt said. Handing out clean needles is one thing, but distributing cookers, tourniquets and more, along with syringes — as envisioned here by program proponents — goes too far. He’s “adamantly opposed” to such a broad-based program.
Weber County Sheriff Terry Thompson is even more critical. While Watt indicated a measure of willingness to consider a program limited to syringe exchanges, the sheriff would oppose even that, worried it could foster increased drug activity. “In my opinion it endorses and also encourages drug use,” he said.
The talk of a program here has even prompted some to wonder whether the 2016 Utah measure allowing for creation of syringe-exchange programs is being used in ways that lawmakers didn’t intend.
The legislation, as Watt reads it, allows drug users to swap dirty needles for clean ones at sanctioned programs. But it’s not meant to permit distribution of cookers, cotton balls used to filter drugs and tourniquets that help IV users find suitable veins for injection, as is done in other locales that have needle-exchange initiatives.
Permitting distribution of paraphernalia other than syringes “was not legislators’ intent,” said Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell, who shares Watt’s reservations. If state lawmakers knew more than just syringes were being distributed, he continued, there would be “a lot of concern, I think, in the legislature.”
Mindy Vincent, executive director of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, has long contended with concerns like those of the Weber County leaders. But she’s undaunted and remains committed to launching a formal program here, like in Salt Lake City, Sandy and Tooele County.
“The bottom line is, it’s legal and we’ll continue to move forward,” she said.
She’s run into similar roadblocks in trying to implement a program in Carbon County as well, which had one of the highest rates of drug deaths in Utah in 2013-2015, according to Utah Department of Health data. “It’s been insane down there,” she said.
Vincent met last Wednesday with several Weber County officials, including Watt, and explained the program. Weber Human Services, which offers substance abuse programs, had a rep at the meeting as well and Kevin Eastman, executive director of the organization, said talks will continue to try to establish a program here. He wants law enforcement to be on board.
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“We want to make sure we’re maintaining good relations with police throughout Weber County,” he said. “We are meeting to try to make all parties comfortable with proceeding on some kind of program ... I still think, yes, we will find some way to collaborate.”
Aside from helping stem the spread of communicable diseases, needle-exchange programs serve as a point of contact between drug abusers and advocates like Vincent who are trying to get addicts off drugs. Such programs are a way to show compassion and, through gentle prodding, encourage drug users to enroll in rehabilitation programs.
“People have asked me for treatment on their very first exchange,” Vincent said. One person whom she got to know through a needle-exchange effort will soon be entering treatment, she added, the second participant to do so.
As for the cotton, cookers and tourniquets, Vincent said those, too, help stem the spread of disease and foster improved health. Without access to clean ones, users will share cookers and cotton when drawing drugs into syringes, another potential means, along with sharing needles, of spreading disease. Without tourniquets to help pop veins, meanwhile, users will sometimes poke themselves “over and over and over” with syringes to find an injection spot,
It would be “almost pointless” to distribute clean needles without cookers, cotton and tourniquets, Vincent said.
Heather Bush, viral hepatitis and syringe exchange coordinator for the Utah Department of Health, said cookers, cotton and tourniquets are given away in many needle-exchange programs elsewhere. She maintains that the Utah measure allowing for creation of needle-exchange programs is mum on whether the other items may legally be distributed.
“There’s nothing that says either way, as far as I know, that they’re legal or illegal,” Bush said.
Breaking the law
Whatever the case, the questions and concerns among Weber County law enforcement officials are strong.
Weber County Attorney Christopher Allred thinks advocates like Vincent break the law permitting syringe-exchange programs when they hand out other items, like cookers and cotton.
“It does not provide for an array of additional drug paraphernalia. In my opinion, the distribution of those items would violate our existing drug paraphernalia laws,” Allred said in an email. Efforts like those of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition are “well-meaning but misguided.”
Thompson, the Weber County sheriff, had tougher words.
Needle-exchange programs in other locales like Seattle, he maintains, lead to bigger problems. Drug dealers will hang out on the fringes, trying to make deals. The convergence of drug users will lead to other issues, like burglaries and assaults. “Those kind of things just come along with it,” he said.
Beyond that, allowing for distribution of needles sends a message that there are no limits, that societal standards are fuzzy, flexible and subject to change without seeming reason.
“Where does that end?” he said.