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Battle brewing over controversial needle exchange. The city wants to change some rules

A Walla Walla nonprofit that brought a syringe exchange to the Tri-Cities last year says new rules proposed in Kennewick could interfere with the public health mission.

Everett Maroon, executive director of Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, said proposed revisions to the city code could put it out of business by restricting operating hours, forcing it to label clean syringes with its name and capping the number of needles clients can get on a single visit.

The Kennewick City Council expects to consider the rules proposed by its planning commission when it meets at 5:50 p.m. Tuesday at city hall. The meeting is an hour earlier than normal because Tuesday is election day.

Harm reduction mission

Maroon said the changes could impede its legally protected efforts to reduce the harm of intravenous drug use.

The grant-funded nonprofit operates syringe exchanges in Walla Walla and Kennewick as part of its mission to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases, as well as to encourage people with drug addictions to get treatment.

The issue could end up in court.

If the city council adopts the code amendments, a representative from Blue Mountain will be at the Benton County Justice Center within days, he said, suggesting a lawsuit to block the changes from taking effect.

Rocky history in Tri-Cities

Blue Mountain, working with the Benton-Franklin Health District, opened its first Tri-City syringe exchange in downtown Pasco in spring 2018.

The exchange operated in a small space leased from Franklin County, necessitating approval from the county commission.

Public health advocates, including the Washington State Health Department, support syringe exchanges because research shows they reduce the spread of disease, reduce the number of syringes tossed out in public places and are an effective way to lead addicts to treatment.

Opponents disagree, claiming handing out clean syringes gives tacit approval to drug abuse.

Blue Mountain lost its Pasco home when the Franklin County Commission reversed its support after Clint Didier, an exchange opponent, was elected to office.

Blue Mountain partnered with Ideal Options, a Tri-City addiction recovery program, to relocate the exchange to a building owned by Ideal Options in Kennewick’s Vista Way neighborhood in April.

Vista Way neighbors and area business owners protested. They objected to the nature of the business and said they were given no notice of the move or voice in the decision.

Blue Mountain moved again. The exchange operates from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays at 8514 W. Gage Blvd., under a lease from Ideal Options.

It is unclear if the proposed rules will apply to Blue Mountain. It would have to apply to the city’s planning director to see if the operation is eligible to be grandfathered in, the city said.

By the numbers

Maroon defended Blue Mountain’s record.

It has exchanged about 160,000 syringes since it first arrived in Kennewick, with an exchange ratio of 94 percent. That means it gave out 100 syringes for every 94 turned in.

The exchange has given out 350 doses of naloxone, also known as Narcan, the emergency narcotics overdose reversal drug. Its naloxone kits have been used 62 times in Kennewick, Maroon said.

Everett Maroon mug
Everett Maroon

It also launched a treatment program in June, currently serving 21 Benton County residents.

“I think it’s working really well for what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Caught by surprise

The Kennewick Planning Commission drafted syringe exchange code amendments out of a sense that the city was unprepared to respond when an exchange opened in its jurisdiction, said city officials.

The new codes would give the city more tools to address the concerns raised by syringe exchanges — the proximity to schools, the number of syringes handed out, discarded needles in the neighborhood and operating hours.

The planning commission recommendations include banning syringe exchanges within 500 feet of places children congregate and 1,000 feet from other exchanges.

It would ban exchanges from serving minors, giving out more than 100 syringes per client and limit operations to “daytime” hours.

Exchanges would be required to label syringes as being from a syringe exchange program.

Maroon said most of the rules are common sense. The Gage exchange meets the 500-foot rule and it does not serve minors.

Others are problematic.

The exchange caps syringes at 500 per client, five times the level the city is proposing.

Maroon said the 100-syringe limit could defeat the exchange’s mission of providing a clean syringe for every injection.

Fewer syringes could increase the likelihood that drug users will share or reuse needles, increasing the possibility of spreading infectious diseases.

Evelyn Lusignan, city spokeswoman, said the proposed code amendments comply with state law.

“The city is not outlawing it,” she said. Instead, it is mitigating health and safety concerns.

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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.
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