October 18, 2013 Updated: October 19, 2013 at 7:05 am
El Paso County drug users could soon turn in used needles and syringes for new, clean ones - all to reduce the spread of AIDS and hepatitis C.
After more than two years of work, a Colorado Springs nonprofit expects to bring a needle exchange program before the El Paso County Board of Health on Monday for approval. It would be the first program of its kind in the Pikes Peak region.
Critics say needle exchanges elsewhere promote drug use. Advocates, though, say the program is a matter of public health.
"It's been effective all across the nation," said Bill Mead, president of the Colorado AIDS Project's board of directors. "We're the largest city that doesn't do it in the state of Colorado."
The concept is simple: Drug users could bring their used needles and syringes to the Southern Colorado AIDS Project's office at 1301 S. 8th St. in exchange for new, sterile equipment.
To receive the new needles and syringes, each person must first register for an identification number and undergo an assessment by one of the nonprofit's staff.
That assessment is key, advocates say, because each prospective participant would be offered counseling services, substance abuse classes and resources for combating drug use. It's up to each participant to follow through and get help, said Richard Blair, a nonprofit spokesman.
"It gives you an opportunity to talk with folks and work with them and to give them options of other services," Blair said.
The program met skepticism when the nonprofit's leaders first tried to gain approval in August. Several board members asked the program's advocates to seek more input from law enforcement agencies in towns bordering Colorado Springs.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, needle exchange programs "were established in the late 1980s in Tacoma, Wa., Portland, Ore., San Francisco and New York City. By 2002, there were 184 programs in more than 36 states, Indian Lands and Puerto Rico. These programs exchanged more than 24 million syringes."
Sheriff's deputies have encountered dirty needles while on duty, and a handful of deputies have been pricked in recent years, said Rob King, an El Paso County Sheriff's Office commander.
"It (the program) puts law enforcement in a position we're unfamiliar with," King said during the board's August meeting. On the one hand, King said, he doesn't want to convey the message that deputies are enabling drug users.
"At the same time," he added, "we want to do what's right for our community."
Jill Law, El Paso County Public Health's director, declined through a spokeswoman to discuss the proposed program until Monday's meeting.
Dan May, 4th Judicial District Attorney, sent a letter stating he was aware of the program but gave no position.
In Denver, two similar storefront programs that began in February appear to have reduced the number of times that drug users share and reuse needles, said Robin Valdez, director of the Denver Department of Environmental Health's community health division.
As of Sept. 17, 1,454 people participated in Denver's program, totaling 9,383 syringe exchanges, he said.
He has received one complaint in that time - a report of a person who received a new needle, then went into a nearby business's restroom to use drugs. That person was found and banned from the exchange program for 30 days, Valdez said.
But he also added that follow-up survey results were encouraging.
The 78 survey participants said they reused syringes an average of 1.6 times after entering the program, down from reusing needles 7.4 times before the program began.
People overseeing the Denver offices also made 3,836 referrals to needle exchange participants seeking medical, mental health and substance abuse care.
"They're going to continue to do that (use drugs) regardless of whether there's a program or not," Valdez said. " . The education, it's going on and it's being retained by the participants."
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