Helping hand for addicts

The lingering opposition to needle exchange and disposal programs is uncaring, retrograde and represents faulty economics.

The lingering opposition to needle exchange and disposal programs is uncaring, retrograde and represents faulty economics.

Red Deer has both a needle exchange program and, after eight more were introduced recently, 10 drop boxes for used needles and other medical sharps.

Both programs have drawn criticism in the community for encouraging drug use, putting park users at risk (the drop boxes are in public places) and wasting public money.

But neither program deserves to be judged harshly; they play vital roles in saving and improving the lives of injection drug users, in protecting those around them, and in reducing the potential for harm to the general public.

Studies clearly show that the use of dirty needles, or the sharing of needles, to inject drugs is an increasing source of HIV transmission. At the same time, the number of cases of HIV directly attributed to unprotected sex has decreased. Nearly half of Canada’s newly diagnosed HIV patients use injection drugs. The relationship is clear, and the consequences are devastating.

And that’s not the end of the health risks. Hepatitis B and C and HIV are all blood-borne diseases, as are more than 17 other diseases that can be transmitted in used syringes.

And an injection drug user will use a syringe as many as 1,000 times a year.

So the potential for health complications from drug use are multiplied by the use of dirty needles. And that means increased stress on the health system. A McMaster University study estimated that a Hamilton needle program prevented 24 new HIV infections over five years and that each HIV and AIDS patient would cost the health system more than $1.3 million directly.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that providing clean needles is facilitating drug use. Addicts will find a way to use drugs whether the needles are clean or not. And providing clean needles should in no way be confused with supplying users with drugs. But it does buy some of them the time to quit the habit by making their drug use as safe as possible.

Since the first official needle program in Canada was launched in Vancouver in 1989, more than 100 others have been established across the country, including those in Alberta. Programs operating in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Grande Prairie distributed 1.4 million needles in 2006-07.

Obviously, the volume of needles used represents huge drug use.

But it’s a problem that is being fought on many fronts.

A report prepared for the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC) board in 2007 stresses that harm reduction strategies should be pragmatic and respectful, and that those strategies include a number of options. Some of those options, obviously, must be counselling and guidance to end substance abuse. Some of the options must include the role of the courts and those who enforce laws. But realistically, harm reduction must also include ways to prevent addicts from doing greater harm to themselves or others.

So how do you protect drug users, and those around them, from infection and perhaps death?

When all else fails, you provide them with the safest possible means, and you protect the general public at the same time.

And that’s where needle exchange programs and needle drop boxes become so critical (in many communities, the drop boxes actually draw more used needles than the clean needle programs hand out).

A 2004 survey said that 75 per cent of Albertans believe alcohol and drug abuse problems are serious, and almost 70 per cent of those polled supported harm reduction methods.

That’s a positive sign that Albertans understand the depth of the drug problem in our communities. Now we just have to accept the methods necessary to prevent the ripple effect of drug use from infecting others.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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