Experts disagree over value of needle exchange program as Weld County commissioners hear testimony |

Experts disagree over value of needle exchange program as Weld County commissioners hear testimony

Tommy Simmons

The Greeley Tribune looks at why Weld County does not have a syringe access program and how that could change in the future.

Law enforcement and public health officials aired differing opinions Tuesday when they met with the Board of Weld County Commissioners to discuss a potential program that would allow drug users to exchange used needles for clean ones.

The scheduled work session was simply a discussion and did not include a vote. But it did provide a forum for some public health officials to endorse the concept while others in the law enforcement community voiced concern.

Syringe access programs are not, at this point, legal in Weld County.

In 2010, the Colorado Legislature passed a law allowing syringe access programs if individual county health boards approved them. Weld hasn't approved the program, but that could change. Dr. Mark Wallace, executive director of Weld County's Health Department, was among those who spoke at the work session.

With Weld's population expected to continue growing, Wallace said he hopes to confront the epidemic of drug use. Syringe access programs are a tool in that toolbox, he said.

The programs provide clean needles free of charge to people addicted to drugs. Programs such as the Northern Colorado AIDS Project, 400 Remington St. in Fort Collins, encourage folks to bring those needles back, although it's not necessarily an equal exchange. Beyond syringes, access programs can provide information on prevention measures, connect people with substance abuse treatment and provide medical care to folks who often feel alienated from the health care system by income level, a criminal history or their housing status.

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Public health officials like Wallace are interested in access programs because they can limit the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and other skin and soft tissue infections. Weld County spends about $4 million each year on treatments related to HIV and hepatitis C. Lifetime treatment for HIV is estimated to cost between $385,200-$618,900. Medication to cure hepatitis C can cost more than $70,000.

Wallace's vision for a Weld program requires community collaboration between health care providers, mental health care providers, local nonprofits and law enforcement. North Range Behavioral Health and Sunrise Community Health are on board.

Syringes aren't expensive, Wallace said after the meeting. Anyone can buy them online and in stores. The program is intended to be a connection point for that addict.

"We can't treat people we can't get to," Wallace said.

At the work session, Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams expressed concern about the possibility of a needle exchange program in his office's jurisdiction, saying it could send the wrong message about drug use and possession.

"We're still talking about an illegal activity," he told the commissioners. "As a law enforcement official, I can't condone that."

Reams was in a unique position to discuss the issue because his deputies manage the Weld County Jail, which often becomes a detoxification facility for drug addicts who have been arrested. He was skeptical about the ability of a syringe access program to help drug addicts and said it would not prevent crime or addiction.

"The people I see coming into my jail … don't tend to put much thought into their behavior prior to coming to jail," he said. "Maybe there's a section of people I haven't come into contact with (who might) benefit from this."

Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner did not speak during the work session, but he expressed similar concerns after the meeting and noted there was no discussion about crime rates.

"A drug needle exchange is beneficial to public health, but it does nothing for public safety," Garner said. "This program does nothing to get people off of drugs, and that's where the money should be going."

Garner said drug use fuels crime, both because addicts need money and might be willing to break the law to obtain it and because people on illegal drugs sometimes act out violently. A syringe access program, he said, only addresses a very simple part of the problem.

Yet Garner and Wallace agreed the problem might be addressed by other solutions, as well, such as having addiction counselors and case managers present when addicts are released from jail. Garner said such a program might help the problem if the resources were available.

"That's a long walk across the (jail) parking lot," Wallace said. "(If I'm an addict) I might be looking at a number of options, and I may make a choice that might be different if there was someone there to help me in that vulnerable place."

Commissioners asked Wallace and his team to speak with leaders of other communities that have addressed the issues of addiction and disease in different ways, as well as speak to other Weld organizations that could help combat the issue. He will address the commissioners again at a later date.

— Greeley Tribune reporter Kelly Ragan contributed to this story

By the numbers

» Lifetime treatment for HIV is estimated to cost between $385,200-$618,900.

» Medication to cure hepatitis C costs about $70,000.

» Cost of a liver transplant is about $577,100.

» Average syringe at Northern Colorado AIDS Project costs 8 cents.

» According to a 2014 study, Weld County is outpacing Larimer County in hepatitis C infections. In 2014, Weld had 44.5 hepatitis C cases per 100,000 people.

Source: Northern Colorado AIDS Project