In a state where influential people think that the sight of a beer being drawn will cause young people to become problem drinkers, it shouldn’t be that surprising that a syringe-exchange program for drug addicts has been a hard sell.
But Utah lawmakers have compromised on their ideal of a barrier — widely lampooned as the Zion Curtain — that once obscured the view of alcohol being poured or mixed. They now allow some options in fulfilling their goal of keeping children away from alcohol.
So should the state and those promoting syringe exchanges and other harm-reduction tricks find a common ground. One that focuses on the original purpose of the program, helping those who use drugs swap out dirty needles for clean ones.
The nation — not just the eruption of sad humanity in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood — is suffering through an epidemic of drug abuse that has never been seen before. Mostly tied to the use and abuse of prescription opioid pain-killers, the flood of abuse killed more Americans last year than the number lost in the entire Vietnam War.
Experts say the epidemic must be fought, simultaneously, on two different tracks — tracks that may seem contradictory rather than complementary. One is to prevent addiction through education and more careful prescribing practices for opioids. The other is to reach those who are already addicted, keep them alive, turn them toward treatment and hold out hope for recovery.
The admirable desire among some in positions of power in Utah to prevent new cases of addiction is getting in the way of the things that need to be done to help those already in its clutches.
Scientists, doctors and other experts — including reformed addicts who now devote themselves to helping others — argue from both empirical research and personal experience that programs with needle exchange offerings are a key step in preventing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C infections. They also note that the human interaction involved in such programs are highly useful as outreach that can bring addicts to treatment, or at least make available doses of the drugs that counter opioid overdoses.
Meanwhile, many politicians and law enforcement officials rely on their own gut feelings to tell them that giving away clean needles only encourages drug use. Which may seem logical, but actually makes about as much sense as arguing that washing the glasses in a bar leads to alcoholism.
Where critics have a point is their objection to the mission creep of some of the exchange programs, those that include spoons, swabs and various chemicals and tools of the trade.
And it is troublesome that programs described as needle “exchanges” see far too many clean needles going out for far too few dirty needles coming back in. The pull of such programs to literally get those infection-spreading sharps off the street is not, apparently, reaching its full potential.
The needle exchange programs, focused on their original point, should continue.