Franklin County evicts needle exchange from Pasco

A look inside Pasco’s syringe exchange

Blue Mountain Heart to Heart has a syringe exchange program in Pasco.
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Blue Mountain Heart to Heart has a syringe exchange program in Pasco.

The Tri-Cities experimental syringe exchange is losing its Pasco home.

The Franklin County commission decided Tuesday to stop providing office space to Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, which in January alone exchanged 18,000 needles.

The Walla Walla nonprofit operates syringe exchanges as part of its mission to prevent the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C and prevent drug overdoses.

The subject was not on the commission’s official agenda.

The commission did not vote but reached a consensus after several critics demanded it be shut down during the public comment section of the meeting.

Blue Mountain will be evicted from its county-owned offices, 412 W. Clark St., if it doesn’t voluntarily move.

The exchange launched last May and ended up serving about 350 Tri-Citians over the course of the year.

syringe exchange
Franklin County is evicting the Pasco syringe exchange operated by Blue Mountain Heart To Heart from a county-owned building on complaints it enables illegal drug use. File McClatchy

It also provided information about treatment, HIV and Hepatitis C testing, free doses of an opioid reversal drug, condoms and other supplies.

The nearest exchange is Blue Mountain’s Walla Walla site.

Everett Maroon, Blue Mountain’s executive director, said he will discuss the next step with his board. It could seek another location.

Blue Mountain expanded to the Tri-Cities in part because about 25 Tri-Citians were regularly using the Walla Walla site, Maroon said.

It exchanged 980 syringes in May. By September, the monthly total had reached nearly 17,000. In January, it topped 18,000.

Demand prompted the Benton-Franklin Health District to pursue funding to open a second location in Benton County, but has not secured the money.

Complaints mount

As the exchange numbers soared, so did the complaints.

Critics complained that it enables illegal drug use and said clients frighten people who work and shop in neighboring buildings.

Clint Didier was one of them.

In his successful 2018 campaign for county commission, Didier vowed to reopen the discussion.

Tuesday, Didier said he was troubled that syringes could be provided to minors and by its location, next to to the WSU Extension office frequented by 4-H youth.

“I don’t think we’re doing our community any justice. We need to readdress this,” he said.

Commissioner Brad Peck agreed.

Peck was a reluctant supporter of the syringe exchange last spring, when he voted to lease space to the health district to house the exchange.

He supported its mission to encourage addicts to get treatment and to help prevent overdoses and the secondary benefits of reducing the number of discarded syringes in the community.

Franklin County is evicting the Pasco syringe exchange operated by Blue Mountain Heart to Heart from a county-owned office on West Clark Street. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

He still supports the mission, but said he was misled about what would happen at the exchange. Peck said he was assured the exchange would provide one clean syringe for every dirty one. Instead, the exchange provided packs of 10 to exchangers.

“The information provided by staff was incorrect,” he said.

Maroon said he was disappointed Peck didn’t discuss it with him first.

“We want to be good partners,” he said.

Opioid overdoses

In addition to exchanging syringes, Blue Mountain gives out free doses of naloxone to drug users and their worried families and friends. Also known as Narcan, naloxone reverses the effects of opioid overdoses.

Blue Mountain gives a brief survey to those who request the doses and gives them an anonymous tracking number. If they ask for additional doses, they are asked to self-report how the original was used.

Based on that system, the doses handed out to Tri-Citians were used to treat overdoses 98 times in 2018 and 14 times so far in 2019.

“I’m sad to hear with more than 100 overdoses reversed with naloxone we handed out, Franklin County is walking away from that,” he said.

The Franklin County Coroner’s office recorded six overdose deaths in 2016, six in 2017 and six in 2018.

The 2018 figures could still rise. Coroner Curtis McGary is awaiting lab results for eight more people who died of possible overdoses in 2018.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the number of syringes recorded by the exchange reflects the number of syringes passed out in exchange for dirty ones and to correct the spelling of naloxone.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.