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Needle exchanges soon to be law but face limited resources

  • Recorder/David RainvilleDiscarded hypodermic needles, seen here across the street from Greenfield District Court, are commonly discovered in public, and called in to police for safe disposal.



Monitor staff
Monday, May 29, 2017

Needle exchanges are expected to become legal in just a few weeks, making New Hampshire the last state in New England to let drug users turn in dirty syringes for clean ones.

The change comes at a time when doctors report seeing more patients with serious infections that can spread by sharing needles and cities are seeing used syringes pile up in public spaces.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said he will sign the bill into law, which will take effect immediately.

But it’s not clear how quickly the syringe exchanges will take hold across the state.

In the time it took lawmakers to hammer out the bill, two groups have set up exchanges in other states and may not have the means to expand into the Granite State.

“We don’t have really the resources at the moment to do yet another program,” said Laura Byrne, executive director of the HIV/HCV Resource Center, which recently opened its second exchange in Vermont. “It’s definitely something we are thinking about.”

Groups, a substance abuse treatment provider, had considered starting a needle exchange pilot program in the state last year. But while lawmakers worked on the N.H. bill, Groups helped open a syringe exchange in Maine.

CEO Jeff DeFlavio said the organization is now working with community partners in New Hampshire to identify the best location for a future exchange, but he isn’t sure exactly when it would open.

“We’re still planning on doing it,” he said. “They are really needed everywhere.”

Two new organizations are expected to launch syringe exchanges in the Upper Valley and Strafford County, though the timing isn’t entirely certain.

Needle exchanges are meant to reduce the spread of infectious diseases among drug users and limit the number of improperly discarded needles.

Doctors say they have noticed an increase in cases of Hepatitis C and bacterial endocarditis among intravenous drug users.

Catholic Medical Center in Manchester saw the number of Hepatitis C cases rise from 157 to 289 from 2014 to 2016. The liver-destroying disease can be cured, but it comes at a steep price. Treatment costs can run from $65,000 to $100,000.

In Manchester, more than 540 used needles were picked up from public parks in 2015, according to testimony from Michele Merritt, policy director at New Futures.

“To say we should have started a needle exchange 10 years ago is an understatement,” she said.

The New Hampshire House last year passed legislation legalizing needle exchanges, but the Senate blocked the policy, opting instead to study the issue over the summer. Some senators worried that decriminalizing possession of used syringes could limit law enforcement’s ability to investigate drug crimes.

This year’s revised measure, Senate Bill 234, is narrower and exempts only people participating in an exchange program from penalties for possessing dirty needles.

The legislation requires organizations to register with the state’s Department of Health and Human Services before launching a needle exchange.

In addition to handing out free, sterile syringes and collecting used ones, the providers are supposed to offer screening for infectious disease and refer clients to treatment.

Unlike Vermont, which provides some funding for syringe exchanges, New Hampshire’s proposal would not allocate any money for needle programs.

The bill has already passed the Republican-led Senate and House.

Dean LeMire, a harm recovery advocate, said he is working with a group to start an exchange in Strafford County that will rely on “street teams” to meet drug users where they are, he said.

Project 439, based out of Dartmouth College, provides clean needles, overdose reversal drugs and refers people to treatment, according to its website. Representatives for the group declined comment.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)