State health commissioner backs needle exchanges, most controversial part of anti-heroin legislation passed this year

The Kentucky General Assembly cracked down in 2012 on “pill mills” that dispense painkillers irresponsibly, and addicts responded by going for heroin, creating a big problem in much of the state. The 2015 legislature passed laws to crack down on heroin, including local needle-exchange programs, the most controversial feature of the package.

In a column distributed to Kentucky newspapers, state Health Commissioner Stephanie Mayfield defends and promotes the local programs, which are subject to local approval.

“To some, a needle exchange may sound like a program that helps intravenous drug users feed their habit,” Mayfield writes. “To the contrary, the intent of an NEP is to protect public health and create a path for heroin users to get treatment while preventing the spread of diseases through the sharing of needles.

Needle exchanges reduce the number of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis cases in a community, Mayfield writes. “The use or even the accidental stick of a dirty needle can lead to hepatitis, HIV/AIDS infection and other dangerous diseases. . . . About 15 percent of all HIV cases that have occurred in Kentucky have been among injecting drug users.”

Stephanie M. Gibson

Mayfield also says needle exchanges protecting people from accidental sticks from dirty needles discarded in public places. “Intravenous drug users submit dirty needles to the NEP for proper disposal in exchange for clean needles,” she writes. “Researchers have also found that injecting drug users who participated in an exchange were more likely to reduce or stop injecting than drug users who had not participated in a needle exchange.”

Research has also shown that needle exchanges “do not encourage the initiation of drug use nor do they increase the frequency of drug use among current users,” Mayfield writes, noting that there are 203 such programs in 34 states.

“The presence of NEPs in communities does not expand drug-related networks nor does it increase crime rates. . . . Needle exchange programs actually create a path for injecting drug users to get help because the programs offer information on how to find available treatment options. In fact, NEP participants are more likely to enter a drug treatment program than nonparticipants.”

More recent studies show that needle exchanges “provide opportunities for disease testing and education leading to a decline of at-risk behaviors, resulting in HIV incidence dropping as much as 80 percent within this population,” Mayfield writes. “Many Kentucky communities are desperate for the ability to reach out to members who suffer from addiction, to help slow the spread of diseases and provide treatment referrals to people they might otherwise never have the chance to reach. This law gives them that opportunity.”

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