City, county start talking about IV drug epidemic

jpawloski@theolympian.comJanuary 7, 2014 

During his routine patrol shift Oct 31st Olympia Police Officer Jeff Herbig walks the rail tracks near the Jefferson Street tunnel amongst discarded hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia found strewn along the line.


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

A rise in the availability of cheap heroin, along with a decrease in the availability of illegally diverted prescription opiates such as oxycodone, are driving the problem of heroin abuse, said Don Sloma, director of Thurston County Public Health and Social Services.

Law enforcement has also noted heroin’s spread across Thurston County.

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

At the same time, state and federal funding to treat addiction of all kinds has decreased drastically over the past several years. Funds for the Chemical Dependency Program that covers Thurston and Mason counties have dropped to $3.42 million annually from $4.33 million in 2009.

Joe Avalos, chemical dependency program manager for Thurston County Public Health and Social Services, said several local outpatient drug treatment programs have closed their doors due to a lack of money.

“What we’ve seen is a collapse in our infrastructure,” Avalos said.

One potential response discussed Monday night was increasing the cap on the number of patients served by methadone treatment at the South Sound Clinic — the sole location in Thurston County where people with heroin addiction can get medically assisted methadone, a legal replacement for heroin.

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

Avalos also explained the purpose of the Thurston County Needle Exchange Program, which allows IV drug users to exchange dirty needles for clean ones and helps reduce the spread of communicable blood-borne diseases.

Some in Olympia who are concerned about the explosion of dirty needles found downtown have questioned whether the exchange is contributing to the spread of discarded needles. 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. 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 showed how to safely dispose of dirty needles. County health officials also noted that a syringe collection and disposal program has been introduced to the county’s Household Hazardous Waste Collection Plan. And a “syringe drop box” will be placed at the Thurston County Syringe Exchange Program’s headquarters on Cherry Street downtown.

Monday’s meeting wrapped up with a consensus among the players that they’re just starting to attack the heroin epidemic. Lobbying the Legislature, bolstering existing programs, increasing lighting and police patrols downtown. These are all pieces of the puzzle, they said.

Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5445

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