Pasco’s ousted needle exchange program needs a new home so it can save lives

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.

Tri-Citians struggling with drug addiction are headed back into the shadows after the Franklin County commissioners decided to oust a syringe exchange program housed in a county-owned building.

Do they think getting rid of the program gets rid of the problem?

By all accounts, the experiment that began last May was a success story.

After its first month of operation, officials at the site exchanged 980 needles. That number reached 7,500 for June. In January it was nearly 18,000.

Everett Maroon, executive director for Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, said that by the end of last year the organization had served 332 people roughly 1,025 times, and exchanged about 98,500 syringes.

That was thousands of needles safely disposed of instead of tossed out in a garbage can or on a city street where a child or someone else could be accidentally pricked by one.

That was thousands of needles that were not used over again, increasing the risk of infections and diseases.

Clearly, this demonstrates a public health need Tri-City officials should not ignore.

Blue Mountain Heart to Heart is a nonprofit agency based in Walla Walla, serving residents there since 1991.

Its mission is to prevent new HIV and hepatitis C infections, as well as help addicts get into treatment. The organization has wanted to expand to Franklin County for a long time, and last spring it finally happened.

The nonprofit provides an invaluable lifeline to some of the most vulnerable people living in our community.

But there is a stigma attached to drug addiction, and people sometimes confuse needle exchange with safe-injection sites. They are different. Drug use is not allowed at a syringe exchange.

There also is the idea that somehow a syringe exchange encourages drug abuse.

In truth, the people who show up at these sites are already addicted to drugs and getting clean needles is, in many cases, the only way to reach them and get them steered toward help.

Maroon said 30 years of research shows these programs prevent the spread of disease and infection, decrease the risk of overdose and increase the likelihood of recovery.

However, too many people refuse to accept these studies.

At the Franklin County Commission meeting last week, a handful of critics pushed for the program’s closure, insisting it enables illegal drug use, and that clients frighten people who work and shop at nearby buildings — even though the program was open only for a few hours on Fridays.

The syringe exchange was set up in downtown Pasco near the Washington State University Extension office visited by 4-H youth, and that was especially problematic for new Franklin Commissioner Clint Didier.

After winning the election last November, he vowed to review the county’s decision to provide space for the syringe program. Now Franklin Commissioner Brad Peck has reversed position and Commissioner Bob Koch didn’t speak on the issue, so we have a valuable program evicted and looking for a new home.

Maroon said since the Franklin County decision “people have been coming out of the woodwork” offering the organization space.

He said he wants to find a new Tri-City location, and notes that syringe exchanges are legal in Washington state and upheld by the state Supreme Court.

The program did not use county tax money for its operations, so its budget is not dependent on Franklin County.

We hope Maroon finds a way to keep the program going in the Tri-Cities.

Heart to Heart already has demonstrated the need, and its workers have made connections with desperate people who are not easy to connect with.

Considering it cost them nothing, the Franklin County position is a short-sighted one for the health of the community. The syringe exchange is needed to curb overdose deaths and get drug addicts out of the shadows and into help.