There is mild panic in needle park.
Some Lompoc residents have objected to a syringe-exchange program operating in the city. The same program is offered in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, without objections from residents there, so far.
Valid arguments are available for both points of view. Decades of research show that needle-exchange programs are effective, save money and save lives, sort of a win/win/win situation all around.
But not completely. Needle exchanges often face fairly stiff resistance because of the general stigma and concerns attached to programs that inevitably attract drug users to specific areas of a community, which can lead to more drug-related problems.
That situation is what concerns Lompoc residents who spoke recently against the one-day-a-week program run by the Pacific Pride Foundation in each of the three cities.
At a meeting in mid-October, residents spoke up about their concerns regarding a mobile exchange vehicle being set up near a bus stop where children were dropped off. The objector wasn’t particularly concerned about the program itself, but about the choice of locations, which he believed exposed children to unnecessary risks.
It was suggested at that meeting the operation be moved to a different location — not an unreasonable request — such as near Lompoc City Hall. The problem there is the proximity of Police Department headquarters, which might scare off some potential needle exchangers.
The outcome of that October meeting is that another meeting will be held, at which Pacific Pride representatives can better explain the exchange program to residents, and listen to suggestions about how to make the program more effective.
It should be an easy sell. America is in the midst of an opioid overdose crisis, and just about anything a community can do to stop that tidal wave of death and destruction should at least be considered.
Needle-exchange programs date back to the 1970s, when drug addicts were sharing dirty syringes, which was one reason for the AIDS/HIV and hepatitis epidemics of that era. Even in the 1970s it was estimated that cost-effectiveness of needle exchanges ranged from $3,000 to $50,000 per HIV infection prevented.
Still, several states ban such programs, although they are OK with the federal government’s rules. Needle exchanges are legal in many states, although there continue to be pockets of resistance, mostly on moral and/or religious grounds.
Needle exchanges provide a place where people can obtain syringes for drug use or dispose of used needles, but they also help connect users to other services, including addiction treatment and medical care.
Acknowledging the fact that some people use drugs, it’s better to provide them somewhere to pick up unused, sterile syringes than to turn them away from potential public-health services, thus forcing them to reuse needles despite the many risks, specifically the risk of spreading dangerous diseases.
Exchanging a needle is infinitely better than tossing a dirty one into bushes at, say, a local park where kids and animals play.
Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization are on board with needle-exchange programs, mostly because they are an effective means of controlling the spread of disease.
The key is to make sure each program is tailored to meet local needs, and to serve the safety of the whole community, not just the needle users. In Lompoc’s case, that means finding a place for the operation that does not frighten or otherwise endanger residents and their children.
It is a solvable problem, to be sure.