Controversial needle exchange program becomes a casualty of Operation Rio Grande — putting drug users at risk, founder says

Homeless campers have scattered to areas where clean needles are scarce but heroin remains plentiful.<br>

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune "We can never hand out enough [syringes]," Mindy Vincent said in early August before the onset of Operation Rio Grande on Aug. 14 scattered the homeless population. Vincent estimated she' has handed out 3,200 syringes to heroin addicts along Rio Grande St. downtown. Vincent, a licensed social worker established Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, a nonprofit to hand out the syringes through the syringe exchange program started by the state in 2016.

Heroin addicts looking for clean needles are in for tough times in Salt Lake City since Operation Rio Grande chased them and a syringe-exchange program out of the area around downtown’s homeless shelter.

The controversial needle exchange that operated twice weekly on 500 West near 300 South near The Road Home was sponsored by the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition to help addicts from contracting diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.

Intravenous drug users will now be at greater risk, warned Mindy Vincent, founder of the program.

But some politicians and law enforcement officials said the program only enabled and encouraged people to take drugs. They also complained that it wasn’t an exchange but rather a giveaway.

Operation Rio Grande has led to the jailing of some 1,400 people — although about 70 percent have been released. The impact has driven many homeless campers and addicts into outlying areas of Salt Lake City and beyond.

The two-year law enforcement effort, launched Aug. 14, has significantly reduced the program’s ability to bring clean needles to heroin addicts, Vincent said. It is difficult to locate homeless addicts who are forced to move frequently by law enforcement officials who recently began to strictly enforce anti-camping laws.

The exchange gave out packages of needles on about 2,000 occasions each month, Vincent said. Now, with addicts jailed or hiding from law enforcement, the number of clients they serve is only a fraction — perhaps 25 percent — of that.

“It’s made things worse for us,” Vincent said. “Operation Rio Grande has practically destroyed the project.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) "Jonathan" holds the syringe with a dose of black tar heroin as he prepares to inject himself on the median near the needle exchange tent on 500 West & 300 South, Thursday, August 3, 2017.

That doesn’t mean that addicts will stop shooting heroin or other illicit drugs, Vincent explained. They will continue to feed their habit by reusing or sharing syringes.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 10 percent of new AIDS cases in 2015 — about 1,800 people — contracted the disease through needles.

A 55-year-old man who identified himself only as Tennessee, said Thursday that he has been using heroin for about five years. He shoots up three or four times a day, whether he has clean needles or not.

Tennessee said he keeps on the move since Operation Rio Grande because police are “hassling people all the time.” Homeless campers, many of whom congregated along 500 West between 200 South and 400 South have now spread out everywhere, he explained.

Fortunately on Wednesday, he found the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition on North Temple. “I saw some people lining up and jumped in,” he said.

Tennessee said he received 20 needles — enough for five days. Clean needles are hard to come by, he said. Heroin is not.

(Chris Smart | The Salt Lake Tribune) A heroin addict called Tennessee said getting clean syringes is more difficult now but heroin is still "everywhere."

“I can walk right down the block and get some,” he said. “It’s everywhere.”

The syringe packets also include other items, such as rubber tubing to facilitate intravenous injections. Critics have called them “party packs” — something Vincent finds disturbing.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who spearheaded Operation Rio Grande, is one of the chief critics of the syringe exchange.

“I don’t believe that a ‘starter kit’ with drug paraphernalia is a way to get someone closer to recovery,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune in August.

Hughes and others said the “exchange” was not a 1-to-1 proposition, but that addicts were able to get as many needles as the could. Among other things, that leads to a vast increase in discarded needles, which poses a public health risk.

Police officers in the Rio Grande area said addicts would sell clean needles from the exchange to other addicts who were unable to find clean syringes.

Hughes allowed that the program could continue somewhere other than the Rio Grande district. However, Vincent said that her organization has been unable to rent a space anywhere in Salt Lake City. “No one will rent to us for a syringe exchange,” she said.

A November CDC report revealed that syringe-exchange programs can curb the risk of HIV infections significantly. Between 2008 and 2014, individuals diagnosed with HIV fell from 6,604 to 3,461.

Nonetheless, in 2015, only 25 percent of people who injected drugs reported using only sterile syringes and needles, the report found, and 33 percent reported sharing syringes in the past year.

The Utah Harm Reduction program was controversial from its inception but became legal after legislation sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, passed.

Eliason took on the challenge, in part, he said, because of the increasing potential for disease transmission through dirty syringes. Although legislation made syringe exchanges legal, it provided no state funding for them.

Beyond the humanitarian aspect of needle exchanges, Eliason said the economics make giving out clean syringes a no-brainer. Utah taxpayers spend huge sums treating HIV and hepatitis C, he said.

From 2014 through 2016, for example, Utah spent $25 million treating hepatitis C.

“This is a huge financial issue for taxpayers,” Eliason said.

For people like Tennessee, it’s just the way it is.