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The Pros and Cons of Needle Exchange Programs

It’s no secret that heroin use is on the rise in the U.S. Data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that heroin use has soared in recent years, from 373,000 yearly users in 2007 to 669,000 in 2012.

This has also led to a sharp increase in new HIV and Hepatitis C infections among these intravenous drug users, leading more government officials to ponder how to address this growing crisis.

Officials Praise the Programs

Michael Botticelli, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has praised needle exchange programs as a way to reduce new infections.

Users who visit these centers can exchange used needles for sterile ones, but may not use drugs on site. The North American Syringe Network reports that there are 200 of these programs across 33 states and the District of Columbia offering support.

“They’ve been demonstrated to reduce not only infectious disease but also create an opportunity for people to get the care and provide a transition into treatment for people in the community,” said Botticelli.

A Look at the Pros and Cons

Some of the pros for these programs are fairly clear. They include the following:

  • Reducing the risk of contaminated needles being shared
  • Reducing the risk of law enforcement officers becoming infected by accidental needle sticks
  • Many of the needle exchange centers offer free HIV testing and counseling
  • Some programs will also assist those seeking help for their drug problem to get into treatment programs, support groups or other local services

On the flip side, those opposed to needle exchange programs cite the following:

  • The programs promote drugs by offering needles to help a person use
  • The apparent “acceptance” of IV drug use will lead to higher rates of drug abuse
  • Many of these programs are being funded with taxpayer dollars
  • Some reports indicate the HIV rate increases as a result of needle exchange programs
  • Locals often feel unsafe due to the constant influx of addicts

A Look at the Numbers

But contrary to the criticisms, studies show these programs can generally help to improve the situations of thousands of IV drug abusers. In fact, data indicates that addicts involved in these programs are actually more likely to attend long-term rehab than those who don’t. European countries who have similar community programs, including Switzerland, Brazil and Norway, have seen a reduction in new cases of HIV contraction and the overall spread of AIDS.

Needle exchange programs can ultimately serve as a solid middle ground for people who aren’t fully ready to stop using yet, but are aware of the danger they face with continued heroin use. This population has a strong likelihood of eventually entering treatment.

Taking away the positive stepping stones like needle exchange programs would likely exacerbate what has already becoming an opiate epidemic of monstrous proportions.

Additional Reading: Why is Opiate Addiction So Hard to Treat?

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