Editorials

Reality vs perception: Kennewick needle exchange starting to change attitudes

McClatchy

Despite the emotional pushback against opening a syringe exchange near Vista Way in Kennewick, the program has been helping addicts for the past several weeks without the drama many people feared.

Dr. Jeff Allgaier arranged for the new location at 2628 W. Bruneau Place, and said that while it seems to be working out well so far, he will continue to look for another site because he promised he would.

In the meantime, though, perhaps the quiet goings-on at the temporary facility will alleviate some of the concerns people had initially, especially since the syringe exchange only operates on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Allgaier and his business partner, Dr. Ken Egli, went into rescue mode when the syringe exchange was evicted from its Pasco home last month. The two doctors are founders of Ideal Option in Kennewick, which operates 24 alcohol- and drug-rehabilitation centers in 11 states.

Being doctors specializing in helping addicts, they set out to save a program they knew was serving a dire need in the community.

What Allgaier and Egli didn’t know, however, is the neighborhood they picked to house the program used to attract many homeless people, much to the dismay of nearby business owners.

Even though this is no longer the case, people who work in that area are extremely sensitive, and they were caught off guard by Allgaier’s and Egli’s plans.

So there was concern and even outrage by people in the community, and Allgaier backed off. He said he would open the site off Vista Way temporarily while he looked for another, suitable site.

So far, he hasn’t found one. But he told the Tri-City Herald Editorial Board that he thinks progress is being made at the current location and more people are offering support, which is a good sign.

Kennewick City Councilman Steve Lee has visited the site during exchange hours, and he said there has been “nothing to react to.” Lee called the operation “unexciting” and said he has heard no complaints from business owners.

Allgaier said it helps that there is a Kennewick police officer parked nearby during exchange hours and that there are security cameras also in place. Allgaier also noted there are medical professionals onsite who can offer immediate help to drug addicts who want it.

And that is key. In many cases, the only way to reach a drug user and offer support is through syringe exchange programs. Otherwise, they often are left to deal with their addiction alone, and that can make it tough for them to get the support they need.

Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg said there have been no reports of criminal conduct during the program’s open hours. But he added that his department has still received complaints from people who don’t want a needle exchange in the city. He said city officials are dong their best to “mitigate” the program’s impact, and having a police officer in the neighborhood during exchange hours has helped the situation.

While Ideal Option is housing the syringe exchange, the program is run by Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, a nonprofit out of Walla Walla. Everett Maroon, executive director of the organization, said 25-35 people have come to the Kennewick location each Friday since the restart, for a total of 11,570 syringes exchanged over the past four weeks.

That is about the same amount as the Pasco location during its second month of operation, he said. By the end of 2018, the syringe exchange in Pasco had served 332 people roughly 1,025 times and exchanged 98,500 syringes.

That means thousands of dirty needles properly disposed of, instead of being reused, shared or discarded in a park or on the street where someone – or someone’s pet – could be pricked.

We think once word spreads and the Kennewick location is set, the numbers will jump like they did last year. Maroon is concerned, however, because the addicts who went to the Pasco location haven’t followed the program to Kennewick yet. We hope that changes.

We thought it was a shame Franklin County evicted the program from one of its buildings, but we are hopeful the program can be successful in Kennewick. Allgaier said that 95-98 percent of his patients are addicted to opioids, and that drug users come from all walks of life.

If anything, the syringe exchange program has revealed the Tri-Cities has a serious drug problem – even if people would prefer not to admit it. As it continues, perhaps more people will realize the good the program is doing and accept that drug users need help, not judgment.

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