Olympia officials, Thurston County Commission discuss possible solutions to heroin problem

Staff writerJanuary 6, 2014 

The Olympia City Council and the Thurston County Commission held a joint work session Monday night to discuss the growing epidemic of intravenous drug use, and its manifestation in a marked increase in discarded needles downtown and in public parks.

Joe Avalos, Chemical Dependency Program Manager for Thurston County Public Health and Social Services, led the program with a presentation that included statistics showing that heroin abuse, both locally and statewide, is on the rise.

A rise in the availability of cheap heroin, along with a decrease in the availability of illegally-diverted prescription opiates like oxycodone, is driving the problem, Don Sloma, Director of Thurston County Public Health and Social Services said.

Law enforcement has noted heroin's spread across Thurston County.

"It's very cheap, it costs about $20 a gram," Capt. Dave Johnson of the Thurston County Drug Task Force said.

At the same time, Sloma, Avalos and others in attendance at the meeting noted that state and federal funding to treat addiction, not only for heroin users, but also for alcohol and other drugs, has decreased drastically over the past several years.

State and federal funding for the Chemical Dependency Program that covers Thurston and Mason counties has dropped to $3.42 million annually from $4.33 million in 2009.

Avalos also pointed to several local outpatient drug treatment programs that have closed their doors over the past several years due to a lack of funding. And there is less money to go around for the programs that still exist, he said.

"What we've seen is a collapse in our infrastructure," Avalos said.

All the shareholders with a stake in attacking the problem of addiction have to realize that it "requires a sustained commitment to collective action," and won't be solved overnight, Sloma said.

One potential response discussed during Monday night's meeting included increasing the cap on the number of patients that can be served by methadone treatment at the South Sound Clinic - the sole location in Thurston County where people with a heroin problem can get medically-assisted methadone.

Methadone acts as a replacement for heroin. Illegal without a prescription, methadone acts by binding to the same "opioid receptors" in the brain as heroin, and cannot be displaced by heroin. That means that methadone users cannot get high as they would off of heroin. They also can function better than they would if they were using heroin, by attending to basic needs such as attending therapy or working at a job.

The Thurston County Commission could authorize the South Sound Clinic to increase its number of clients from 400 to 650, officials pointed out Monday night.

Avalos also explained the purpose of the Thurston County Needle Exchange Program, which allows IV drug users to exchange dirty needles for clean needles. The program, founded in Thurston County in 1993, helps reduce potential for the spread of communicable blood-borne diseases like hepatitis and HIV, by preventing IV drug users from sharing dirty needles.

Some in Olympia who are concerned about the explosion of dirty needles being found in downtown Olympia and in public parks have questioned whether the needle exchange is contributing to the spread of discarded needles. But Avalos has said the program does not give out a clean needle unless a dirty one is dropped off.

Members of the Downtown Ambassadors encountered 69 discarded needles in downtown Olympia in July, 2013. In August, they encountered 135 discarded needles.

"I don't want to take away a program that's working, but we're having an overload of needles," Olympia City Councilor Julie Hankins said.

Avalos presented a video that offered instruction in how to safely dispose of dirty needles. County health officials also noted Monday night that a syringe collection and disposal program has been introduced to the county's Household Hazardous Waste Collection Plan. "Needle stick" prevention training also can be offered to local businesses and the public to mitigate potential harms, he added.

A "syringe drop box" will be placed at the Thurston County Syringe Exchange Program's headquarters on Cherry Street downtown, so that needles can be safely discarded there when the exchange is not open. An additional drop box is to be installed by the county in a yet-to-be determined location.

Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza also spoke during Monday night's meeting. Snaza noted that the county sheriff's office is more than willing to help with enforcement efforts downtown.

However, Snaza noted that budget cuts have ended the Olympia Police Department's contribution of a detective to the local Thurston County Narcotics Task Force. The drug task force does great work in getting drugs off the streets, but the lack of an Olympia detective takes away from additional work the task force could be doing to help fight the heroin problem in downtown Olympia, Snaza said.

Monday night's meeting wrapped up with a consensus among the players, from Olympia city councilors, to Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum, to the Thurston County Commission, that the growing dialogue is just a start to attacking the heroin epidemic. Lobbying the Legislature, bolstering existing programs, increasing lighting and police patrols downtown are all pieces of the puzzle, they said.

"This is the beginning of the conversation," Buxbaum said.





Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5445 jpawloski@theolympian.com

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