As Dirty Syringes Pile Up, One N.H. Lawmaker Seeks to Legalize Needle Exchange
In Manchester this past year, more than 540 dirty syringes have been found. But as heroin use increases across the state, used needles are also showing up in cities like Nashua, Dover and Laconia.
As part of our series, Dangerous Ends, we look at one bill seeking to legalize needle exchange programs in New Hampshire – a proposal that has been controversial in the state.
Walk around Manchester with the city’s public health director and you spend a lot of time with your eyes fixed on the ground.
In the two hours Tim Soucy spent looking for used needles, he found six of them. Five outside one apartment on the West Side, one behind an abandoned house nearby and a spoon with heroin residue found at the city’s new frisbee golf course on the South Side – less than one hundred yards from a playground.
And the residents Soucy bumps into said finding needles is something they’re used to doing like Heather Philipp of West Manchester. “You looking for needles? I know where you can get one,” Philipp told Soucy while standing outside her home.
There are few places in the state where people can dispose of syringes but they’re not meant for illegal drugs. And according to state law having a dirty heroin needle is a felony, which holds up to seven years behind bars.
Legislation proposed this session would allow trace amounts of heroin on used needles, so people could dispose of them without fearing arrest. Rep. Joe Hannon a Republican from Lee is the main sponsor behind the legislation.
“This is going to save money – people are getting Medicare, Medicaid and it is costing us a lot of money to treat them," Hannon said. "So, if we save one or two people from being sick in Manchester alone that would offset the cost if Manchester decided to fund their own program or if private groups came forward and did it.”
Two of the biggest health concerns when it comes to heroin use are Hepatitis C and HIV.
Here in New Hampshire there haven’t been reported increases in either. But the state is just starting to track Hepatitis C. However, anecdotally community health centers across the state have been seeing an uptick.
Earlier this year an increase in heroin use in Indiana led to an HIV outbreak. Soon after Indiana opened up its first needle exchange program.
Currently 36 states have legalized such programs including every New England state besides New Hampshire.
At the White River Junction needle exchange program in Vermont, organizers said a third of its clients are from the Granite State traveling from as far as Manchester and Coos County.
But law enforcement in the state has been reluctant.
“It basically decriminalizes heroin and yes it’s for a specific amount, but that’s not the direction we want to go,” Greenland Police Chief Tara Laurent said while testifying before the legislative drug task force last month.
Although the bill’s language is still in its early stages, Laurent said passing this legislation would more or less legalize an illegal substance. “The saying we have been using in the state of New Hampshire is ‘we can’t arrest our way out of the problem,’ and I totally agree with that, but it doesn’t mean that law enforcement goes away,” Laurent told lawmakers.
Dana Eldridge lives in a sober house in Manchester and has had his fair share of run ins with law enforcement. He’s been clean for more than a month now but he’s used heroin for more than two decades and has been arrested numerous times. “I wasn’t a convicted felon until I got caught with a dirty needle,” Eldridge said during an interview in Manchester.
Eldridge has Hepatitis C and at the height of his drug use, he said he would use the same needle up to 50 times. “A couple years ago I was in the hospital for an abscess I got from using a dull needle and I could have lost my arm," he said. "I was in there for 12 days and all that could have been prevented if we had a needle exchange program.”
In 2000, after a decade-long legislative battle, the state allowed people without a prescription to legally get up to ten syringes at a pharmacy.
But for those using, Eldridge said, the cost is still a hurdle. “You use it and then use it again, and then use it again, and I know that is only five dollars for ten but when you are using sometimes you don’t have that extra five dollars – it goes towards the drugs,” he said.
And Kevin Irwin of Dover, who spent years researching needle exchange, said the state’s current law doesn’t go far enough.
"Clean needles don't make addicts do heroin - addicts do heroin because they are addicts. The clean needles are just something that will help," Rep. Joe Hannon said.
Irwin said just because by statue syringes should be accessible at pharmacies– doesn’t mean they are. “They need to be close by, right, can they get there, is there a pharmacy near them, does the pharmacy actually stock syringes, and sell syringes to people who come in and ask for them, and that is absolutely not a given,” he said.
The proposed bill; however, has zero state dollars attached to it – something Rep. Hannon said was designed to help it get through the legislature.
This means if the law is changed – nonprofits, private organizations or municipalities would have to bear the cost, which could range from $10,000 a year for just the needles and disposal to $100,000 if additional staffing is needed.
One of those people who’s interested in taking that on is Jeff DeFlavio. He runs Recover Together, an addiction treatment facility, which has locations throughout southern and western New Hampshire.
DeFlavio said if the law is changed, he hopes to open up an exchange program this year. He believes the biggest benefit of an exchange is how it connects people to treatment.
“The medical paradigm is that people hit rock bottom and then they decide they are going to change their lives and something really bad has to happen for them to decide they want to be different and really a lot of the times they just have to have the opportunity,” DeFlavio said.
Rep. Hannon said lawmakers will likely debate the bill early this session. He said the biggest challenge may be educating his colleagues.
“Clean needles don’t make addicts do heroin – addicts do heroin because they are addicts. The clean needles are just something that will help,” Hannon said.
If this bill does reach Gov. Maggie Hassan’s desk, she said she’ll likely sign it into law.