Clean needle access is a must, activists say
Twenty-nine people were arrested protesting the ban on federal funds for clean-needle access programs on Wednesday. Credit: Stephanie Simpson
Clean needle access is a must, activists say

Clean needles are available at Denver's Harm Reduction Action Center on Wednesdays, so there's a steady stream of clients.

 

The small Santa Fe Drive office is filled with people eating cupcakes and cereal, drinking coffee and lemonade and chatting.

 

Eventually, almost everyone makes their way to a table at the far end of the room, where volunteer James Ziegler is distributing 20-packs of clean needles. He writes down an anonymous code for each client. Beside the code, he notes how many syringes have been dropped off and picked up and how many people will receive the needles. He asks the clients if they'd like free HIV or hepatitis C testing.

 

On the same Wednesday morning - March 21 – a total of 29 chanting, chained protesters were arrested by Capitol Police in Washington DC. The protest was part of a national day of action to lift the ban on using federal funding for clean-needle access programs, like the one in Denver.

 

Groups of activists locked themselves together in the offices of Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Reps. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Eric Cantor (R-VA). These are the legislators responsible for reinstating the ban on using federal funds for syringe-exchanges. The ban – which had previously been in place since 1988 – was lifted in 2009.

 

Harm reduction programs are seeking legislative aid for funding because they currently draw on a small pool of private money – six foundations nationally – said Lisa Raville, director of the Harm Reduction Action Center.

 

There are many studies that point to clean-needle access as an effective, not to mention relatively cheap, way to stop the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.

 

“Syringe exchanges drastically reduce the number of aids infections and hepatitis C infections,” said Kenyon Farrow of Housing Works, an AIDS advocacy group. “It does not increase the number of drug users. None of the research shows anything like that to be true.”

 

Farrow participated in the Washington D.C. protests, although he was not arrested.

 

Besides the Washington action, harm reduction volunteers, staff, advocates and clients around the country participated in email and phone campaigns, asking legislators to support needle-exchange funding. The Harm Reduction Action Center encouraged volunteers and clients to call or e-mail Colorado legislators on Wednesday.

 

Tom, a 47-year-old Denver man who uses the Harm Reduction Action Center, contacted two legislators during his visit. Tom has injected heroin for more than 25 years – although he's given it up and began methadone treatments in the past three weeks. He also has hepatitis C.

 

“I believe this could save thousands of lives,” Tom said. “Maybe millions of lives.”

 

The Harm Reduction Action Center began offering a legal needle exchange on Feb. 8. Before then,clean needles were harder to come by, Tom said. He'd get syringes from a friend with diabetes, or he'd buy them for a quarter each at a Colfax Avenue drug store. Sometimes, if he got cleaned up and acted confident and knowledgeable about his needle choice, he could buy a 100 pack from King Soopers.

 

“I'd use a needle until it wore out,” Tom said. “Some needles I'd use 50 times.”

 

Reusing and sharing needles pose obvious health threats, like transmission of HIV and hepatitis C, Raville said. It can also lead to serious bacterial infections.

 

Besides providing clean needles, the Harm Reduction Action Center offers the community a safe place to dispose of any syringes and tattoo and acupuncture needles, Raville said.

 

So perhaps it's not surprising that advocates find little organized opposition to clean-needle access programs.

 

“At this point, it only comes from pretty conservative politicians,” said Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. “What is so frustrating is they really don't care about the science. They ignore the science”

 

The programs come under fire because politicians assume that drug users are a vulnerable, unloved group, Clear said. He believes Wednesday's protests were successful if they showed politicians that the public does care about access to clean needles.

 

“People who use drugs are our relatives; they are us,” Clear said. “Drug users are a part of the fabric of our community. This affects so many people.”

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Leslie Wilber is a journalist who has covered police misconduct, courts, high school sports and other disasterous things. She lives in Denver and is an editor at The Precarious.

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