After decades of failed policy driven by the multibillion-dollar federal drug war that criminalizes drug use and addiction, some states are slowly coming around on their own with new health-based approaches.
In May, Nevada will become the first U.S. state to offer clean needle exchanges through no-charge, automated vending machines, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported this week. Clean needles and gear will first be made available in machines at three locations in Las Vegas.
Participants in the program, which is run by the Southern Nevada Health District, the Nevada AIDS Research and Education Society, and Trac-B Exchange, will be issued cards that they can then scan in the machines. Included in the kits are 10 syringes, a tourniquet, a disposal container for used syringes, alcohol swabs and adhesive bandages,” Huffington Post reported.
“This is like our heart and soul. Seeing this happen is actually like a dream come true,” Michele Jorge, HIV lab director at the Community Counseling Center, told the Review Journal.
The program’s primary goal is to reduce the transmission of communicable diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV, both risks for those who use dirty needles for intravenous drug use. Health officials have noted an increase in recent years in hepatitis C cases among young people in the U.S.
Harm reduction clinics have been offering some clean needle exchanges—common in other countries—for several years. And last year, Congress finally ended a ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs, NBC reported.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that heroin use continues to increase across the U.S. Its most recent report, based on studies from 2002-2013, noted that the greatest increases in use occurred in demographic groups with historically low rates of heroin use, including women, the privately insured, and people with higher incomes.
Heroin-related overdose deaths also increased during the same period, nearly quadrupling to 8,200 deaths in 2013.
Liz Evans, executive director at New York Harm Reduction Educators, called needle exchanges, and harm reduction programs in general, a “philosophy of service at the front end…adjusting the way we look at drug users,” according to NBC. “Too often we fail to see drug users as human beings, and they become defined by that and get called all these names like junkies and addicts. It becomes harder as a society to respond to them with kindness.”