While some are praising Utah’s new needle exchange program, which operates primarily in Salt Lake County, officials in other parts of the state are skeptical.
Every Monday and Thursday, Utah Harm Reduction Coalition erects a white tent in the grassy median outside the homeless shelter in Salt Lake City. From two to four in the afternoon, dozens of people line up to drop off used hypodermic needles and get a brown paper bag full of fresh needles, a tourniquet, alcohol swipes, some cotton and a little metal pan for cooking heroin.
A guy whose street-name is Point, is helping fill the paper bags.
“Before these guys came, I know people that would one needle would share with 10 different people,” Point says. “They’d sit in a circle and share the same damn needle. That’s hard to see. Hard to watch. I’ve seen people use bent needles, dirty needles, needles that they find in the garbage. So these guys are heaven sent.”
In 2016, Utah lawmakers passed a bill that allowed non-profit organizations to set up needle exchange programs in the state. The legislation sponsored by Republican State Representative Steve Eliason also requires the exchange programs offer resources and information on where to get tested and how to get help.
Eliason says early data shows the program is accomplishing what the bill set out to do.
“Gotten thousands of dirty needles off the streets in exchange for new syringes that don’t carry diseases,” Eliason says.
But not everyone is so sure that it will be successful. Lieutenant Danielle Croyal with Ogden Police says providers are essentially handing out drug paraphernalia in addition to clean needles, which is illegal.
“The needle exchange program, the interpretation was through law enforcement is an exchange of needles,” Croyal says. “Not a complete kit to help you inject the drugs.”
Representative Eliason says the ancillary items like the cotton also help prevent disease transmission. He is working to clarify what is legally permissible to include in the kit.