Utah County residents often don’t admit they live in an urban county with big-city problems. "Happy Valley," they call it.
So when the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, which gives out clean needle kits to intravenous drug users, wanted to start distributing kits in the county, the Utah County Commission passed a resolution opposing the creation of a needle exchange program.
The resolution doesn't prevent the exchange, which the commission acknowledges.
"It's more like a moral stance," a commission spokesman said.
Commissioners’ concerns about accidental jabs from needles are legitimate, and every effort must be made to protect the public.
But protecting the public also includes protecting the growing number of addicts. Needle exchanges start with the premise that drug injections are going to happen, and that premise seems too defeatist to many people who only see addiction in the abstract.
But those who get up close — those who have known addicts — don't see the abstract. They just see people who don't deserve to die or get HIV from a dirty needle.
That is a real moral stance.
Heroin addiction and overdoses are sweeping across Utah. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that heroin overdose deaths in Utah have tripled since 2007. Utah had 166 in 2016, all of them preventable.
Even the Utah Legislature, never a bastion of drug permissiveness, saw the importance of needle exchanges when it authorized them in a 2016 bill called “Disease Prevention and Substance Abuse Reduction Amendments.”
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who sponsored the bill, reacted to the county commission’s resolution with, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
For their part, the people involved in the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition would rather work collaboratively with the county, particularly those in law enforcement and social services. Hopefully that will still happen, since those county employees are less likely to see addicts as those abstractions.
In addition to clean needles, the kits also have information about Naloxone, the anti-overdose treatment that has saved thousands of lives, and about local treatment options.
Speaking of which, there is one thing commissioners could do without feeling icky. They could encourage their constituents to vote for Medicaid expansion so the tax dollars we send to Washington can come back for drug treatment.
Utah County is booming, but with growth comes maturity. County leaders can’t just look away and think they have accomplished something.
Happy doesn’t mean perfect.