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Harm Reduction 2.0: Needle Exchange Offers Crack Pipes

August 16, 2010
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Listen to this commentary here.

The first needle exchange program in the United States began in 1988 in Tacoma.  By 1990 the efforts spread across south Seattle, downtown and into the University District where the program is run by an organization called The People’s Harm Reduction Alliance.

Needle exchange programs are controversial. Some say offering access to free supplies needed for drug use increases drug use, and tempts those who may not already be using.

The much more sound observation is that intravenous drug use increases the spread of diseases like AIDS and HIV, Hepatitis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that injection drug use is responsible for more than one-third of all AIDS cases in the United States. The CDC says the practice both “directly and indirectly” facilitates the spread of HIV and AIDS, noting that the unsafe sharing of needles not only puts users at risk, but also exposes their sexual partners and their children.

Needle exchange programs attempt to mitigate this risk by providing free sterile syringes to injection drug users, as well as collecting and safely disposing of their used needles. Some programs also offer alcohol pads, condoms, and HIV testing and counseling.

The U District program offers vein care, Hepatitis C testing, and even free delivery anywhere in King County.

Now they have a new service; sterile crack pipes for addicts who need them.  That’s right, the needle exchange program now offers free crack pipes.  It may seem questionable, but the efforts are rooted in the risk factors associated with smoking crack and sharing pipes with fellow users.

For the uninitiated, smoking crack cocaine is most often done by using a pipe made from a small glass tube.  A small piece of clean heavy copper or occasionally a stainless steel scouring pad is used to help reduce the crack to vapor.  Like needles, often pipes are shared between users.  Diseases are passed in saliva and blood from person to person.

Crack users brought this to the attention of the U District exchange program and wanted to know where the services were for them.

The People’s Harm Reduction Alliance responded swiftly with their new program, which they say has been well received.  They may be raising eyebrows and ruffling feathers, but they’re also doing what is right.

Most of the time and money that has been invested in the ongoing war on drugs has been directed toward separating drug abusers from the objects of their addiction, by criminalizing addiction and drug use.  This outdated approach does nothing to increase a user’s access to supportive services, or an awareness of the risks to their health or the health of those around them.

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