‘Life-saving’ needle exchange programs criticized, halted in two Indiana counties

(WISH Photo)

(WISH) — Needle exchange programs touted to slow the spread of disease among intravenous drug users have been criticized by some Hoosier lawmakers and halted in at least two Indiana counties, despite evidence-based support from groups including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Madison County officials voted to end funding for their clean syringe initiative in August, citing moral concerns and local skepticism of the program’s effectiveness.

Fred Reese, one of the council members who supported shutting the program down in the 5-2 vote, told 24-Hour News 8 it was “a very difficult decision.” The program had served Madison County for two years and provided more than 200,000 sterile syringes to about 500 people.

However, statistics show not all participants returned the needles distributed to them, officials said, sparking concern that the program functioned more like a hand-out than an exchange.

Leaders in Lawrence County echoed that concern when they, too, voted to end their needle exchange program in October.

“I cannot support the aiding and abating of illegal drug use,” explained Dustin Gabhart, one of the three Lawrence County commissioners who voted unanimously to eliminate the program.

He compared the logic behind the harm reduction initiative to “giving Maserati keys to a repeat speeding offender” or “buying lighters and gasoline” for a convicted arsonist.

“As trivial and funny as that sounds, that’s how the needle exchange program works,” Gabhart told 24-Hour News 8. “It just continues the bad behavior and enables more of it by reducing the stigma.”

He acknowledged heroin abuse had reached alarming levels throughout Lawrence County and said he would support the creation of a therapy-based program to address addiction, as long as it does not call for the distribution of illegal drug paraphernalia.

“We don’t need to give out more needles,” said Gabhart. “They’re everywhere.”

He said used syringes could be found on the ground at parks, trails, shopping center parking lots, gas stations and other public locations across the county.

Advocates called the elimination of the syringe exchange services in Madison and Lawrence counties “tragic.”

“We’re in the midst of the worst drug crisis in the history of the world,” announced Christopher Abert, a social worker at the Indiana Recovery Alliance.

The donation- and grant-funded organization was created in response to the 2015 HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks in Scott and Monroe counties that brought Hoosier drug abuse to the “center of international attention,” according to the group.

The Recovery Alliance distributes harm reduction supplies – including sterile needles and overdose reversal kits – and works to combat addiction with education, advocacy, low barrier outreach services and compassion.

“Addiction is not looked upon kindly in our society,” said Abert. “There are people publicly cheering on their deaths. I can’t think of another segment of our population that goes through that. When people come in, they’re stigmatized, they’re scared to ask for help [and] they think we’re going to judge them or turn them in to law enforcement.”

Instead, their meetings and needle exchange van are often “the only place some people get smiles all week.”

Brandon Drake, a former drug user who now works with the Alliance, said the group’s judgment-free approach created a safe space for him to feel worthy of living a full life – his first major step toward sobriety – even after a relapse that left him discouraged and ashamed.

“They came to check on me and just asked if I was okay,” he told 24-Hour News 8. “They never once said to me, ‘You’ve failed. We don’t believe in you anymore.’ Instead, they asked if I had [overdose reversal drug] naloxone and if I knew how to use it.”

Feelings of shame and failure to live up to society’s standards can trigger relapses or discourage an addict from seeking treatment, according to Drake.

“You hate yourself and you wonder, ‘What’s the point of trying to get clean?'” he explained. “That’s what happens when you treat [someone struggling with addiction] like a criminal and cut off their only support services… [The Indiana Recovery Alliance] was the only place that I found where I could find safety, be harbored from my own shame and be taught that I was still valuable to the community.”

Drake smiled as he recalled how he received not only sterile syringes from their needle exchange program, but also hope.

“They saved my life,” he said. “They don’t just hand you a needle and tell you to go get high. They have a conversation with you. They ask you how you’re feeling. They check if you’re being safe. They remind you that someone cares.”