On Dec. 4, the El Paso County Board of Health postponed a vote on a possible needle exchange program, dashing any hopes of the implementation of this type of lifesaving program for the foreseeable future. Needle exchange programs establish places where drug users can exchange used needles for clean ones, in an effort to prevent the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, which can be transmitted through needle sharing.
The board’s decision was based on false morals and unscientific convictions about how and why people use drugs, and it will have lasting negative impacts on thousands of lives. Though none of the members of the board gave an explanation for their decision, statements made by the County Commission, which appoints the Board of Health, shed light on the faulty logic behind opposition to needle exchange. A resolution they passed unanimously said that needle exchange “can be seen as facilitating dangerous and destructive drug abuse,” and that “government-sponsored syringe exchange programs [are] not in the best interest of Colorado citizens.”
But countless studies have proved that needle exchange programs are unequivocally good for everyone involved. They decrease transmission rates of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, create an empowering community structure for drug users, link them to resources to get treatment, and save taxpayers a lot of money in the long run. Yet the language of “personal responsibility” and being “tough on crime” has prevented their implementation in a lot of places, including El Paso County.
About a third of all Americans with HIV/AIDS are intravenous drug users. Rates are similarly high for other blood-borne pathogens. Numerous federal studies have shown that needle exchange programs reduce the transmission of such diseases without increasing rates of drug abuse, including one in New Haven, Conn., which found that rates of transmission of HIV/AIDS went down by 33 percent as a direct result of their program. In New York City, transmission rates fell 80 percent among drug users as a result of needle exchange programs.
This translates not only to fewer premature deaths and better quality of life for participants, but massive savings for taxpayers. A clean syringe costs a little under a dollar; the average cost to treat a person with HIV/AIDS over the course of their life is $300,000. Fiscal hawks who oppose needle exchange because of the upfront cost are therefore being incredibly short-sighted.
Needle exchange offices often serve as critical community centers for drug users, many of whom have been estranged from family and friends because of their substance abuse. Here they can form support groups and learn about their rights. For many who have struggled with a serious drug addiction, the relationships built at needle exchange offices have pulled them back from the brink and given them the support system they needed to turn things around. In an interview with The Atlantic, an anonymous woman who used a needle exchange program said, “This is where we learn to stop seeing ourselves as just a bunch of drug users.” The empowerment that comes with the recognition of shared hardship is crucial to recovery, and needle exchange offices are some of the only places these types of communities can form.
Needle exchange offices also help educate drug users about what resources are available to help them quit. Whereas without them, it’s difficult to find drug users in order to provide them with support, needle exchange programs bring them all to one place so they can streamline support systems. Opponents of needle exchange often argue that this just enables drug users. But the truth is that most drug addicts want to quit; they just don’t have the tools to do so by themselves. Needle exchange programs provide a safer place for people to use drugs and then provide them the resources to help them quit when they are ready.
It’s sad when politicians make an objectively poor decision because it seems like the politically expedient choice. Needle exchange programs should be highly popular—they save lives and money, create community, and make cities and neighborhoods safer for everyone. A good politician should be able to recognize that and be skilled enough to portray them as the public benefit that they are.
I’m not trying to say that the members of the El Paso County Board of Health who voted against needle exchange are bad at their jobs—but they definitely did a bad job on this one. And the HIV-infected blood of thousands of El Paso County intravenous drug users is, in many ways, on their hands.