With syringe exchange legislation pending in the General Assembly, law enforcement officers came to Raleigh last week to express their support for a variety of harm reduction measures.
By Taylor Sisk
“I’m not an enabler,” Sen Jim Davis (R-Franklin) told an audience of law enforcement officers, drug policy-reform advocates, health care professionals and concerned citizens last Thursday. “I’m an empower person.”
Davis’ comments were by way of underscoring his support for the introduction of syringe exchange programs in North Carolina and his optimism that the state legislature will get behind such an initiative in the near future.
In April, Sen. Stan Bingham (R-Denton) introduced Senate Bill 794 to legalize syringe exchange programs. Davis is a co-sponsor of the bill, along with a bipartisan smattering of lawmakers from all over the state.
He was speaking at the Law Enforcement and Community Summit on Heroin, hosted by the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition at the General Assembly building in Raleigh. A primary topic of discussion was syringe exchange: Initiatives to collect used syringes from drug users and exchange them for sterile ones. The hope is the programs will help reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C and decrease the likelihood of needle-stick injuries to law enforcement officers and emergency medical personnel.
Importantly, syringe exchange programs offer access to treatment and a variety of supports.
Twenty states now authorize such programs.
Law and order
“You will not find a more law and order enforcement-minded chief of police than I am,” Waynesville’s Chief Bill Hollingsed told summit attendees. “But as overdose deaths continue to rise, law enforcement is coming to realize that we must examine these nontraditional approaches regarding this epidemic.”
By “nontraditional approaches,” Hollingsed referred to syringe exchange, naloxone distribution, Good Samaritan laws, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion and other law enforcement-initiated programs aimed at getting people into treatment.
“The issue of deaths due to opioid overdose is a community issue,” Hollingsed continued, “and it must be addressed by all of us in our communities to truly make a change.”
Mike Page agreed.
“The first line of defense in this is a community effort to talk about the issue,” the Wilmington resident told Thursday’s audience of about 200. “For the longest time, this was something no one wanted to address, pretending it wasn’t happening.”
“A little over a year ago, I was a felon,” he said. “I was an IV drug user. I was someone you didn’t want around. I would steal, I would lie, I did what I had to do to get high.”
Naloxone – a drug that abruptly reverses overdose from opioids, including heroin and prescription painkillers – saved Page’s life. Now he’s leveraging his experience to save others, distributing naloxone and working as a peer support specialist.
“I wouldn’t have that happily-ever-after,” Page said, if not for the harm reduction community. Through it, he said, he found the road to recovery.
Scott Proescholdbell, an epidemiologist with the Injury and Violence Prevention Branch of the state Division of Public Health, presented some sobering data.
While deaths from motor vehicle accidents in the state have dropped considerably in the past 15 years and deaths from firearms have fallen slightly, lives lost to accidental drug poisoning have nearly tripled.
Heroin overdose deaths have risen from 37 in 2010 to the 271 that have thus far been confirmed in 2015.
Between 2010 and 2014, the state experienced a 429 percent increase in emergency department visits due to heroin overdose.
And, Proescholdbell said, there have been 19 recent deaths attributed to the synthetic opioid fentanyl, believed to be up to 50 times more potent than heroin.
He then presented some encouraging statistics on the burgeoning deployment throughout the state of naloxone: Between Aug. 1, 2013 and April 30 of this year, 2,848 opioid overdose reversals were reported.
Cops on board
Robert Childs, head of the Harm Reduction Coalition, urged the summit audience to take advantage of the day at the legislature to knock on their local representatives’ doors and express support for the syringe exchange legislation.
Childs cited a national study that found 30 percent of law enforcement officers surveyed had been stuck by a needle at some point in their career; 28 percent had been stuck multiple times.
Legalizing syringe exchange, he said, has been shown to reduce these incidents by up to 66 percent, thereby reducing the risk of exposure to HIV or hepatitis C.
“We’re seeing a big increase in law enforcement support for syringe exchange in North Carolina,” Childs said.
Jim Johnson, former police chief of Huntington, W.V., attended the summit to express his support.
Johnson said he would never have imagined himself becoming an advocate for syringe exchange, but today he travels the country sharing what such an initiative has accomplished in his city.
Several years ago, he said, 60 percent of umbilical cord blood tests in Huntington showed traces of opioids at birth and 13.9 percent of babies were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.
Overdose deaths were well over the national average.
“What we were doing did not work,” Johnson said. “The problem got worse.”
Huntington’s syringe exchange program was launched last September. Johnson said 1,100 people have entered the program and 80,000 used syringes have been taken off the streets. The city saw a 40 percent reduction in overdose deaths from the first quarter of last year to the first quarter of this year.
“I think we have a moral responsibility to do [this] for our communities,” he concluded.
‘Passionate and strategic teamwork’
One of the day’s final speakers was Terry Nowiski, whose son Aaron, an 82nd Airborne Division veteran who served in Iraq, died from a heroin overdose.
“He realized that the self-control he possessed as a war fighter was no match for his opiate addiction,” Nowiski said.
“He tried to fight it alone,” she said. He died at 24.
For a time, Aaron worked with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. “He was particularly excited about the syringe exchange program,” Nowiski said. “He did his research.”
“If Aaron were alive today, he’d be so pleased and excited” by the momentum behind this syringe exchange initiative. The work ahead, she said, requires “passionate and strategic teamwork.”
“My challenge for each of us here,” Chief Hollingsed said, “is that when we leave this room, we, as individuals, will return to our own communities and make a difference in the lives of those we serve.
“Together, as a whole, we will truly make a difference and a positive impact across our state.”