By Taylor Knopf
On Wednesday afternoons, Michael Page and Hyun Namkoong load up a gray, nondescript minivan with short and long syringes, cotton balls, alcohol swabs, tourniquets, hazardous waste disposal cups, condoms, water bottles, granola bars and doses of an overdose reversal drug called naloxone.
As they drive around downtown Wilmington, they schedule back-to-back meet up points behind fast food joints, gas stations, strip malls and at some individuals’ homes.
“We got DJ down here, and got your guy on Castle Street,” Page said. “Lynn moved, I don’t know where she went. Her number isn’t working.”
“You want me to call George?” Namkoong asked.
“Hit up George. I’m gonna call Bruce,” Page said.
Page texted another woman about her supply. The woman replies that she doesn’t need anything. She quit using.
A mini celebration breaks out in the van.
Page and Namkoong work with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. They love to see syringe exchange participants stop using drugs and move into addiction treatment. That’s the goal.
But in the meantime, they deliver clean supplies and naloxone to prevent those using intravenous drugs from contracting HIV and hepatitis C, or worse, dying from a drug overdose. In 2016, there were 3,684 overdose reversals reported to NCHRC.
However, what people do with many of these supplies is definitely illegal.
How it works
The NCHRC in Wilmington has between 400-500 registered participants. Very little personal information goes into the identification card. Page said he sometimes doesn’t even ask for a last name.
Namkoong explained that state law requires there to be some form of written verification for members of a needle exchange program. Additionally, the law provides limited immunity for needle exchange participants in possession of injection supplies and any residue in them, she said. In theory, if a needle exchange participant in possession of syringes is stopped by an officer, they should be able to present their ID card and avoid a paraphernalia charge.
Some feel comfortable enough to come to the NCHRC fixed site at 3951 Market St. for supplies. However, for those with limited transportation or who are just uncomfortable coming to an office, there is the Wednesday mobile syringe exchange.
One participant said the mobile exchange helps her and her neighbors because she and many others don’t have a car.
“If it wasn’t for them being mobile, we wouldn’t be able to use their services,” said Jen who requested her last name be omitted.
She’s been using the exchange for a couple months and appreciates that she can keep herself free from disease. Before the exchange, Jen said she would the same syringe for a week or more.
While she isn’t ready for substance abuse treatment yet, Jen said she plans to look into it and holds on to the list from NCHRC of all the resources available to her.
“I tell everybody about [the mobile exchange],” she said. “Three or four people have come with me before. I explain to them that these are really good people. They are not judgmental.
“They are here to help.”
Jen initially came into contact with NCHRC while at the county jail visiting her boyfriend. As she was leaving, she ran into Namkoong who was leaving her overdose prevention class for inmates. Namkoong offered her a ride.
“I saw the Narcan bottles she has as earrings so I asked her about it,” Jen said. “She explained what she did, and I went to the office and volunteered to help her out some.”
NCHRC staff make jewelry and key chains out of naloxone vials used to save a life. They then sell them for $20, which enables them to buy three more naloxone kits.
Last Wednesday, Page and Namkoong met about two dozen people, collected 1,300 dirty needles and gave out 1,680 clean ones. They considered it a good night and a decent return rate on the needles.
NCHRC has a contract to incinerate the dirty needles so they don’t end up on the ground or sticking a city trash worker.
Judgment free zone
Every participant getting supplies at the mobile exchange emphasized that it’s important that they don’t feel judged for their addiction.
“I can tell (Mike’s) out to change things,” said Joe, an alias name for one of the men who received supplies last Wednesday when the van stopped behind a temporary logging facility.
“He breaks the stereotype that only a certain color or certain kind of person does drugs or helps people on drugs,” Joe continued. “He doesn’t see color. He just sees people. And he can relate.”
Joe described himself as a soccer dad on disability from a back problem who is just trying to take care of his family.
“I’m just taking it one day at a time,” he said. “I continue going to meetings. Just staying positive.”
Another syringe exchange participant said she likes to get rid of her old syringes to protect the environment.
“I saw something on Facebook where a bird had made a nest out of used syringes that it had found. It was so sad,” said Allison whose last name is omitted for anonymity.
She’s been using the exchange for about a year.
“They are so nice. They don’t make it awkward or anything,” Allison said.
The mobile syringe exchange van made a stop in a neighborhood where a mom, her son and her son’s girlfriend all came out for supplies. People from nearby houses came out to take a look and grab a few things also.
DJ and his girlfriend Melissa both live with his mom. Melissa is pregnant, stopped using drugs and got a full-time job. DJ is trying to do the same.
He told Namkoong that he had an appointment to get into treatment the next day.
“I’m super stoked!” DJ said. “I’m doing it for my kid.”
Note: Hyun Namkoong contributed to NC Health News before taking a position with NCHRC.