Heroin epidemic: Free needle exchange program coming to Springdale, Cincinnati may be next

Program aimed at stopping spread of disease

CINCINNATI -- Heroin use is skyrocketing across the Tri-State causing its share of health-related problems -- and not just among addicts.

The troubling trend has one group moving to begin a free needle exchange program in Springdale in the hopes of expanding it to select Cincinnati neighborhoods by mid-2014.

In Hamilton County:

  • Someone dies every other day of a drug overdose, most due to opiate abuse, according to recent studies.
  • Hepatitis C infection rates among young people have more than doubled in the past five years, mostly due to injecting drugs.
  • 36 percent of new HIV infections are attributed to injection drug use, usually opiates.

But addiction generally doesn't start with a needle, but rather with prescription medication including OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet. Some addicts looking for a cheaper, easier fix, turn to the streets and heroin.

Many users warm the heroin to liquefy it, then inject it using a syringe and hypodermic needle. Some people throw the needle away, while others pass it along to be used by someone else.

Used needles can carry dangerous blood-borne pathogens like HIV and hepatitis C.

Locally, there have been cases of sanitation workers and children accidentally pricking themselves with discarded needles, prompting health scares.

Hoping to reduce the risk and lower the ominous statistics, the Hamilton County Response to the Opioid Epidemic is about to begin a free needle exchange program in Springdale.

“Heroin and discarded needles are a real problem that’s spreading,” said Adam Reilly, an HIV educator who volunteers with the coalition.

“We started to see more people shooting up around the city, and there were no resources available to deal with it,” Reilly said.

Program Would Be Third In Ohio

Composed of public health officials, law enforcement, drug prevention groups and others, the coalition has focused on conducting a grassroots education campaign to help pave the way for accepting a needle exchange program.

There are 221 needle exchange programs across the United States. The first formal program was created in Tacoma, Wash., in 1988.

Springdale’s will be the third program in Ohio, after Cleveland and Portsmouth.

Cleveland has one of the oldest programs nationwide, begun 18 years ago. Since that time, the number of new HIV infections stemming from intravenous drug use has fallen dramatically, from 17 percent to less than 4 percent.

Since Portsmouth’s program began two years ago, hepatitis C cases there have been cut in half and drug overdose deaths have dropped by 30 percent.

“Initially, when you bring the idea up, there’s resistance until you give people the hard data,” said Mike Moroski, a coalition volunteer.

Moroski, a candidate for Cincinnati City Council, has seen the effects of heroin abuse up close as co-founder of the now-defunct Choices Café at Elm and 15th streets in Over-the-Rhine, as well as a Drop Inn Center board member.

Issue Debated at Legislature

Besides health benefits for the users, needle exchange programs often lead to a reduction in crime, Moroski said. Many petty crimes are committed by drug users desperate for cash to feed their addiction.

After Baltimore’s program began in 1994, break-ins and burglaries dropped by 11 percent in areas where the program operated, but increased by 8 percent in non-needle exchange areas.

The number of used needles found dropped.

“The mean number of needles per 100 trash items per block dropped from 2.42 in one year to 1.30 two years later,” according to a Baltimore Health Department briefing.

Earlier this month the Ohio House of Representatives passed a bill that would make it easier to establish needle exchange programs.

The bill would allow local boards of health to establish needle exchanges. Currently, the programs may only be created after a public health emergency has been declared.

It would also exempt program operators from being prosecuted under drug paraphernalia laws.

“This bill allows for communities to create a first line of defense against the epidemic created by the heroin crisis,” said State Rep. Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood), the bill’s sponsor.

“It creates a path to treatment for those who are dug addicted and recover dangerous used syringes from playgrounds, parks, and city streets reducing contact by innocent children,” Antonio added.

The bill easily passed the House in a 72-23 vote, and now heads to the Ohio Senate.

Opponents: Mixed Message

Opponents already are lining up to block passage.

Citizens for Community Values (CCV), a conservative group based in Sharonville, recently sent an email to followers with the headline, “Where is common sense?”

In the email, CCV alleged needle exchange programs send “mixed messages” to youth, and doesn’t reduce addiction rates.

Supporters counter the programs not only reduce disease, but provide more opportunities to connect drug users with other services to help them beat their addictions.

“It accomplishes so many goals at once,” Moroski said. “It reduces the burden to taxpayers for hospital

visits from overdose cases, it helps prevent first responders from getting stuck by needles, it can reduce crime and it can get some of the users into treatment programs.”

Sometime next year, the coalition hopes to get approval for a needle exchange program in Over-the-Rhine, Lower Price Hill and Westwood. If the program is successful, it could eventually be expanded citywide.

So far, most of Cincinnati City Council has expressed support for the concept, as have Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune and Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil.

Despite growing support, a federal ban on funding needle exchange programs that dates to the 1980s remains in place. President Obama lifted the ban in 2009, but Congress reinstated it two years later.

Hamilton County’s current effort is using seed funding from Interact for Health. But any long-term plan will have to rely on grants and donations, Reilly said.

Second Try For Cincinnati

Cincinnati almost had a needle exchange program two decades ago.

In 1994, then-City Councilman Tyrone Yates introduced a proposal to begin one in the Queen City.

“I got up to four, and nearly five, votes of council informally, but council was never able to approve the measure,” said Yates, who now is a Municipal Court judge.

While Yates was a state representative in 2009, he introduced a bill to allow needle exchange programs across Ohio, but it died after he left for the judiciary.

"At the time I introduced the bill, intravenous drug use was on the rise,” Yates said. “It is now skyrocketing in Ohio and it is sharply rising in Hamilton County.

“It was good public policy in 1994 and it is good public policy now,” he added. “I urge them not to give up and to stay the course.”

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