A recently released report by the federal government found that needle exchange programs increased significantly over the last decade. Wochit
Donnie Parnell, who retired as a top anti-drug agent for the state of North Carolina, said it’s time to rethink approaches to the growing menace of heroin and other drugs.
“Nothing that’s being done now has stopped anyone from using intravenous drugs,” he said. “We haven’t scared people out of using heroin. We haven’t scared people out of using pills.”
Iowa has yet to join 36 other states in allowing “needle exchanges,” in which drug users can turn in dirty needles in return for clean ones. Supporters say the programs can reduce transmission of hepatitis C, AIDS and other diseases, while introducing drug users to public-health officials who can set them up with treatment for their addictions when they’re ready to try.
North Carolina legalized needle exchanges in 2015. Parnell and three other North Carolina officials traveled to the Iowa Statehouse Tuesday at the invitation of advocates of the idea here.
Parnell, who now works as a sheriff’s investigator in North Carolina, said he used to be a gung-ho participant in the war on drugs. He said he took part in countless drug raids and helped seize enough drugs to fill the conference room where more than a dozen legislators came to hear Tuesday’s presentation.
“I chased crack cocaine like a puppy chasing a tennis ball,” he said in a distinctive southern drawl.
Parnell said his attitude changed as he saw studies showing that offering help instead of jail to low-level drug users can help reduce drug abuse and let police focus on arresting major drug dealers.
He said it’s time to put aside the assumption that by offering clean syringes and needles, officials tacitly encourage citizens to try illegal drugs. “No one woke up this morning and said, ‘If I can get a clean syringe, I’m going to start using heroin,’” he said.
Under North Carolina’s new rules, drug abusers know police won’t arrest them for carrying needles, so they’re more likely to admit when they have them in their pockets, Parnell said. That means police officers, ambulance crew members and emergency room nurses are less likely to get stuck with needles carrying deadly viruses, he said.
Lars Paul, a captain for the Fayetteville, N.C., Police Department, also spoke on behalf of needle exchanges. Like Parnell, Paul said he initially was skeptical of the new approach, but has come around. Among other things, he said, the programs give people with drug addictions regular interactions with public-health workers who can steer them to addiction treatment programs.
“It’s effective. We support it. It’s the way of the future,” he said of the consensus among North Carolina law officers.
Iowa legislators have considered allowing such programs here, as intravenous use of heroin and methamphetamine has caused a spike in serious diseases. The Iowa Department of Public Health reports that hepatitis C diagnoses have more than quadrupled among young adults since 2010.
A bill to allow needle exchanges failed to make it through last week’s annual “funnel” deadline in the Iowa Senate. But supporters of the idea still hope to see the proposal attached as an amendment to another bill and passed this spring.
Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, thanked the North Carolina officials for coming to the Iowa Statehouse to recount their experiences with the needle-exchange idea. Holt, who is a former police officer, said they helped him overcome his skepticism. “My attitude has always been we’d somehow be encouraging drug use or enabling drug use by doing this,” he said.
At the end of the meeting, Deborah Thompson, the Iowa Department of Public Health’s legislative liaison, told legislators that her department supports the idea and probably could find federal money to get a program started if they pass it. She said there already are community agencies that have shown interest in setting up needle exchanges with state oversight.
The North Carolina officials traveled to Iowa at the invitation of the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, a public-health group advocating for needle exchanges and similar programs.
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