Utah County has the need, and support from community organizations, to open three needle exchanges tomorrow, according to Mindy Vincent, executive director of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition.
But that hasn’t happened yet, she said, partly due to efforts to build partnerships with local government and law enforcement.
“We don’t ever want to just go trampling into town, [saying] ‘This is the law, we can do it,'” Vincent said. “We want to collaborate with people, and we want to work with the counties. That takes a lot of time.”
Vincent’s organization and others like it may need to move forward on their own. On Tuesday, the Utah County Commission voted 2-1 for a blanket opposition to exchanges, controversy-prone programs that provide free syringes to drug users and addicts in the hope of cutting down on injury and the spread of disease from used needles.
“It sounds like they don’t want to participate in exchange right now, which is fine,” Vincent said of the Utah County resolution. “I just hope that they are not going to actually try to block it. We’re just trying to help people.”
State lawmakers legalized needle exchanges in 2016, with requirements that drug users who participate be informed of overdose-reversal medication and disease-testing and addiction-treatment options.
That law was sponsored by Rep. Steven Eliason, R-Sandy, who said there are “mountains of evidence” showing the efficacy of needle exchanges in reducing the prevalence of HIV and hepatitis C, as well as the taxpayer-supported health care costs of treating those diseases.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Eliason said after being told of the Utah County resolution. “A short discussion with virtually any epidemiologist or hepatologist will [make] clear that this is good public policy that reduces disease transmission and helps addicts get into treatment."
Nonprofit organizations operate needle exchanges independent of county government, Eliason said. That means that under the state law he sponsored, organizations like the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition have the right to conduct exchanges with or without the support or approval of government.
And Cody Law, a spokesman for the Utah County Commission, agreed with that interpretation of the law. The commission’s resolution would not halt the launch or operation of an exchange, he said, but it makes clear that the commission is opposed to such a program and that no taxpayer dollars will be used to distribute clean syringes to drug users.
“It’s more like a moral stance,” Law said of the resolution. “That’s what they’re talking about.”
The Utah Harm Reduction Coalition is Utah’s first and largest exchange provider, operating 10 programs in three counties: Weber, Tooele and Salt Lake.
The group’s operation was drastically reduced by Operation Rio Grande, a multifaceted law enforcement effort to mitigate drug crimes and homelessness around Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande neighborhood.
Before the operation, Vincent said her organization would hold two exchange events for a combined four hours each week in Salt Lake City, providing 1,500-2,000 encounters.
But the operation scattered the homeless and drug-addicted population, Vincent said, and the coalition now holds exchanges for about 40 hours each week at several locations, and it hosts 1,100 encounters.
“They all used to be in one spot, and now they’re not,” Vincent said. “We’ve gotten pretty stable in our numbers, but we will have to see.”
Continued law enforcement operations — like a temporary police “hub” at 837 W. North Temple — have led to additional migration of drug users, Vincent said, and to more attempts to find locations for exchanges. But she said that is a different challenge than the continued misperception of how the programs operate and of the benefits they bring to a community.
“Drug-related injury costs a fortune,” Vincent said. “It’s unfortunate people don’t see how much money can be saved if we just help people be safe.”