One of the most visible signs of heroin’s resurgence in Olympia is the increase in dirty, discarded needles being found downtown.
In August, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department began keeping statistics on discarded needles left in public parks. As of mid-October, the tally was 269.
One way to deal with discarded needles — as well as potentially help their users — is exchanges that trade new syringes for old ones. In Thurston County, the Syringe Exchange Program distributes free needles to IV drug users in downtown Olympia.
Advocates say the exchange is an essential part of a “harm-reduction strategy” that keeps users from contracting or spreading communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.
Needle exchanges also are an important point of contact for treatment providers to meet with and encourage IV drug users to seek help, advocates said.
Supporters say they do not believe the needles the exchange distributes end up discarded in public places, because the facility gives fresh needles only in exchange for dirty ones.
Olympia police officer Jeff Herbig doesn’t see it that way and says the county should rethink its policy.
“We are in a situation where there are a lot of heroin-addicted folks who are in a community that makes it very easy to be an IV drug user,” said Herbig, the city’s downtown bicycle patrol officer.
“I recognize the importance or the medical necessity for drug users to have access to clean needles, but right now the needle exchange is providing a clean windshield for a drunk driver.”
The exchange program, with an annual budget of just more than $200,000, has been in place in Olympia since 1993. It is managed by the county’s Chemical Dependency Program, which along with the state Department of Health, partially funds it.
The exchange is open at its downtown office 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays, and noon-5 p.m. Thursdays. A “mobile exchange” distributes needles in rural areas of the county as needed 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays.
The IV drug users who use the exchange include many people who are employed and not living on the streets, said Dr. Diana Yu, Thurston County’s health officer.
“I watch some people exchanging that I would never have thought would be needle drug users,” she said. “The reality is you have to have money to be able to afford to buy drugs.”
Mason and Lewis counties do not have needle exchange programs, so people who live there also likely use Thurston’s exchange, Yu said.
“It’s not the cause of the problem,” Yu said of the needle exchange. “It’s one of the pieces in the solution.”
Chris Johnson’s job is to be on the streets every day, trying to get the indigent and homeless into drug or alcohol treatment. The county’s intensive case manager for co-occuring disorders, Johnson is an employee of Northwest Resources, a chemical dependency treatment center in Olympia.
The needle exchange, he said, is a great resource for staying in contact with IV drug users. It helps him determine whether they’re healthy and helps him try to recruit them into treatment.
Johnson recruited 120 people into treatment services last year. One out of every seven clients he helped was recruited from the needle exchange.
During the past five years, the Thurston program has seen the number of used needles being exchanged increase by 2 percent to 5 percent each year, said Joe Avalos, manager of the Thurston and Mason County Chemical Dependency Program.
The number of dirty needles the exchange takes from users is larger than the number of clean needles it distributes, he added.
In 2012, the exchange program collected 950,000 used syringes, and provided about 914,000 clean ones, Avalos said. For the first six months of 2013, it collected more than 600,000 used syringes, handing out more than 570,000 syringes.
Studies show needle-exchange programs do not cause an increase in dirty needles being discarded in public places, said Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute.
“Syringe exchanges do not cause people to be using drugs,” he added. “They provide the necessary supplies to keep people from reusing or sharing syringes and needles. This prevents infectious diseases, abscesses, other medical problems and death.”
Research shows syringe exchanges save lives and are cost effective, he added.
Herbig, the downtown patrol officer, isn’t convinced.
During a recent patrol, he was called out to collect a discarded needle in a planter at Drees, a downtown home furnishing store.
He said employees watering the planter could easily have been stuck by the needle, if they weren’t paying attention to where they placed their hands.
“The needle exchange is well-intentioned, and could very well be beneficial,” Herbig said, “but as it is now, we have a bunch of unintended victims and community impacts.”