There haven't been many bright spots in the effort to contain the drug crisis. About 64,000 Americans died last year of drug overdoses – about as many, notes the New York Times, as were killed in the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined. Already this year, there have been 65 confirmed overdose deaths of Allen County residents, most of them involving opioids.
Take some heart, though, in the Allen County Commissioners' decision last week to extend the county's syringe exchange program for two years. In spring 2016, when the community was debating the Health Department's plan to implement a needle exchange to combat an upsurge in HIV and hepatitis C cases caused by intravenous drug use, Commissioner Nelson Peters voted against the proposal, which was approved by the other two commissioners, Therese Brown and Linda Bloom.
Last week's reauthorization was not just the right thing to do. The unanimous vote could be read as symbolic of increasing enlightenment about how to respond to Indiana's addiction problem.
Partly because of red tape at the state level, there was a long delay before Allen County's clinic opened last November. For the first few months, there were few visitors. But with the sad reality that there are about 40,000 addicts in the county, health officials knew that would change.
In the last few months, traffic has picked up at the center at 519 Oxford St., Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan told the commissioners. Open every Tuesday afternoon, the clinic has logged 425 visits from more than 140 addicts. Some have taken counselors up on offers to be tested for disease or counseled for their drug problems. Impressively, the clinic has collected more than 14,000 used syringes – a 96 percent rate of return, which is well above the national average.
The Journal Gazette's Rosa Salter Rodriguez reported that McMahan attributes the high return rate to the clinic's distribution of plastic sharps containers like the ones you see at doctor's offices and pharmacies. Needles placed in those containers and returned not only won't be used to spread disease to other intravenous drug users but also won't be discarded on the street to endanger children or thrown into waste cans to imperil sanitation workers.
And the once-skeptical Peters has come around, pronouncing himself “astounded by the 96 percent return rate.”
Others have made that same journey, including the vice president. When Scott County in southern Indiana faced the worst HIV epidemic in state history, then-Gov. Mike Pence resisted approving the state's first needle exchange in 2015. But he relented, and the exchange that was set up is widely credited with helping to get the devastating outbreak under control.
A bill to reduce the bureaucratic obstacles to other counties that want to institute syringe programs passed the legislature this spring and was signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb.
As we've noted, giving needles to addicts seems counterintuitive – but it can save lives and prevent huge public medical costs, and may help reduce addiction in the long run. Grasping that truth is a step toward understanding that, while drug trafficking or use is a crime, addiction is a disease and needs to be dealt with as a public health problem.