Tribune Editorial: Get those dirty needles off the street

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alex Larson, left, and Patrick Rezac, right, Executive Director of One Voice Recovery, check in with Ivan Vasquez, 58, who is homeless and a heroin user in West Salt Lake recently. In an effort to curb the incidents of Hepatitis, HIV and STD's, Rezac's grass roots team hands out disease prevention kits and provides a needle exchange program.

People who insist on seeing drug abuse and addiction as strictly a law enforcement/interdiction issue may never be sold on the idea.

But folks who know that the problem is a growing public health epidemic, and needs to be addressed with a medical approach rather than merely a police matter, are continuing their efforts on what the experts call harm reduction.

Helping bridge the gap between those two approaches is the local organization called One Voice Recovery, specifically that group’s ongoing syringe exchange — emphasis on the word “exchange” — program.

The idea is to provide people who are already abusing intravenous drugs the option of at least using a sterile needle when they shoot up. That may seem like enabling bad behavior, and such worthies as Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes have criticized the programs on that score.

But such efforts are clearly much better than standing by and watching users compound their health risks by exposing themselves to not only illicit drugs but also to unintended consequences that could include HIV/AIDS or hepatitis. And, until we come up with the money and the effort — emphasis on the word “money” — to provide far more treatment options, standing by is exactly what we are doing.

It’s not fair to pit some efforts against others, as all have their hearts in the right places. But One Voice Recovery does answer one concern of those who question its approach by at least trying to do more than put more clean needles into the mix. The point is also to take dirty needles off the street. And out of the park. And away from the river bank.

Left, as they so often are, wherever they may fall makes used needles a danger not just to those who abuse drugs, but to anyone who might happen by. That’s why the organization counts it as a success that, over the last 90 days, as they handed out 11,000 clean syringes, they collected 8,000 used ones.

That’s not the one-for-one swap that might be ideal. But it’s also not a good idea to encourage untrained people to go around gathering used needles the way some people go in search of aluminum cans to sell for scrap.

Of course, the larger goal of One Voice Recovery and similar programs, here and elsewhere, is to do more than offer new needles. It is to establish some human contact with drug abusers and addicts — homeless or not — as a hopeful bridge toward treatment and recovery.

It’s well worth the effort.