This Controversial Program Could Curb America's Latest Drug Crisis

If needle-exchange programs could potentially save the thousands of lives, why have more than two dozen states made them illegal?

Posted: 03/18/2014 12:30 PM EDT
Needle Exchange Program

The White House recently called attention to the massive spike in heroin abuse, which rose 79 percent nationwide between 2007 and 2012. Supporters of needle-exchange programs claim that the initiative would not only save heroin addicts’ lives, but also help reduce disease and save taxpayers money.

Through a needle-exchange program, drug users turn in their used syringes for clean ones. This simple approach aims to reduce harm to addicts before they decide to enter treatment.

Reducing the reusing or sharing of needles among drug users would also lower their risk of contracting fatal diseases strongly linked to intravenous drug use. Tens of thousands of Americans die from AIDS and hepatitis alone each year, according to government statistics. 

A number of studies, including one conducted by Johns Hopkins University and two by the U.S. Department of Health and Department of Health and Human Services, confirms what the program's supporters have continued to claim: needle-exchange programs do not lead to increased drug use.

Needle-exchange proponents also argue that keeping intravenous drug users in low-income communities disease-free could drastically reduce the strain on taxpayer-funded public health care. 

So why have needle exchange programs been criminalized in 26 states throughout the South and Midwest?  

"In the South, syringes are still seen as a moral issue," Tessie Castillo, who works at the North Carolina Harm Reduction Center, told the Huffington Post.

"The perception is that if we give someone a syringe, we're helping them to continue to do something wrong. The debate doesn't go much beyond that." 

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(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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