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Pasco needle exchange a first for the Tri-Cities

The Franklin County commission cleared the way for the Tri-Cities first syringe exchange Tuesday when it agreed to allow the exchange in space it leases in downtown Pasco to the Benton-Franklin Health District. Blue Mountain Heart to Heart HIV/AIDS Support Services will operate the exchange four hours a week.
The Franklin County commission cleared the way for the Tri-Cities first syringe exchange Tuesday when it agreed to allow the exchange in space it leases in downtown Pasco to the Benton-Franklin Health District. Blue Mountain Heart to Heart HIV/AIDS Support Services will operate the exchange four hours a week. McClatchy

A first-of-its-kind syringe exchange in Pasco will offer drug users a place to swap dirty needles for clean ones, access treatment and find medicine to reverse an overdose.

It’s all intended to save lives and make the public safer.

The new syringe exchange promises to boost treatment and reduce the number of needles carelessly discarded in public places.

It also could keep drug users off highways because some are driving as far as Walla Walla and Yakima to swap needles.

The Benton-Franklin Health District and the Walla Walla-based nonprofit that will run the exchange cleared a final hurdle Tuesday, when Franklin County commissioners voted 2-0 to authorize an exchange site as long as it does not interfere with the downtown Pasco neighborhood.

Dr. Amy Person, the Mid-Columbia’s top health officer, called the exchange a victory for public health and safety.

Exchanges don’t enable drug abuse, she said. Rather, they connect willing addicts to treatment, reduce the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C and lessen the chance of accidental needle pricks suffered by first responders and others.

They also reduce crime rates by addressing addiction head on, said officials.

There is research that cities that have syringe exchanges do see a decrease in the amount of needles that are discarded. We think it will be of benefit to the general public.

Dr. Amy Person, Benton-Franklin Health District

“There is research that cities that have syringe exchanges do see a decrease in the amount of needles that are discarded. We think it will be of benefit to the general public,” Person said.

Franklin County had to vote on the move because it leases office space to the health district. The commission’s approval was the final step in a lengthy process to open a syringe exchange in the Mid-Columbia.

Person said the national opioid crisis drove home the need to find new ways to reach local users.

“I think people saw that this is a problem where we have a lot of fatalities and a lot of overdoses,” she said.

Blue Mountain Heart to Heart HIV/AIDS Support Services of Walla Walla will operate the exchange for four hours once a week at 412 W. Clark St., next to the U.S. Postal Service office.

It has not said when it will start.

The exchange is intended for people using injectable narcotics such as heroin who need a safe way to dispose of used needles and to get clean ones. The nearest exchange, in Walla Walla, reports about 25 Tri-City clients regularly drive over to exchange needles.

The one-day-a-week exchange will keep them off the road and expand the number of people using clean needles, potentially reducing transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C. The exchange will offer treatment resources as well, potentially helping users escape the clutches of addiction.

Person cited surveys indicating about half of the clients for syringe exchanges are interested in getting addiction treatment.

33,300Washington residents who inject narcotics

59%Men

41% Women

83% White

39% Homeless

A 2017 survey by the University of Washington Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute found that half of those who use methamphetamine as their main drug were interested in stopping.

And nearly 80 percent of opioid users who visit syringe exchanges said they want to reduce or stop their use, it said.

The study said there are at least 25 syringe exchange programs operating in 18 Washington counties, typically through local health departments, tribal entities and community-based organizations such as Blue Mountain.

The district elected to house Blue Mountain at its Pasco clinic because the Kennewick clinic is next to the Benton County Justice Center.

The justice center houses the Benton County jail and is heavily trafficked by law enforcement, which potential syringe exchange clients could find intimidating.

The health district worked with Franklin County Commission officials to allay fears and concerns of the program being based in Pasco.

Franklin County Chairman Brad Peck and Commissioner Rick Miller were among the skeptics. Both said they had to be convinced the exchange would not enable addiction. Commissioner Bob Koch was absent and did not vote.

Blue Mountain Heart to Heart is dedicated to preventing new HIV and Hepatitis C infections and to caring for those infected and affected by the diseases. It’s annual budget of about $228,000 is mostly funded by government grants.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

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