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Council Briefed on Syringe Exchange Program Proposal

Nurses Wollert and Bennett Address the Lamar City Council

Nurses Wollert and Bennett Address the Lamar City Council

A discussion concerning a program to reduce the increase of Hepatitis C in Prowers County was presented to the Lamar City Council by members of the County Health Department. Tammie Clark, Director of Public Health for Prowers County, was accompanied by public health nurses Morgan Bennett and Ryann Wollert, who presented health-related concerns regarding local drug usage at the council work session, June 27th.  The presenters said that use of heroin is growing in the county and the fact that users share needles is also a special concern, specifically for the subsequent contamination that can  lead to the spread of Hepatitis C among needle users.

“A 4% growth rate of the disease was noted for the county in 2013, which rose to 6% the year after and it was up 8% in 2015,” said Bennett. Based on national statistics, Bennett explained there was a 35% risk of contracting Hepatitis C every time a drug user stuck themselves with a dirty/used syringe.  Clark told the council a person will probably keep using the same syringe for a heroin fix for as long as it lasts.  Syringes are routinely shared among users who show little or no regard to blood contamination.  For medical issues alone, that’s why the county health department is considering adopting a syringe exchange program being used in other communities in the country.

Regional statistics presented for teen usage showed 15.4% of youngsters from 12 to 17 years of age had used prescription pills for basically a ‘fun’ high, but found that heroin was a less expensive choice over oxycodone pills, but that use brought more health risks because of needle sharing. Bennett said it was not uncommon for a person to develop a heroin habit amounting to $120 a day for a single gram of the drug.

They also cited a 2016 report from USA Today which described events in Austin, Indiana, a rural community of 4,200 which had the largest outbreak of HIV virus in the state’s history, attributable to a drug outbreak affecting 153 cases. The director of the Center for Disease Control, Tom Frieden, stated the town had more people infected with HIV through injection use than in all of New York City in a recent year.  He estimated the lifetime cost of treatment for those people at $100M.  While the nurses said the problems in Prowers County are nowhere near those reported in Indiana, the number of emergency cases being brought to the attention of the local medical community is increasing.  The progression from illegal use of pain pills to heroin was extremely dramatic in the Indiana community.  One of the contributing factors to the outbreak was the reluctance of those infected to seek treatment in local, public health facilities, for fear of being recognized in such a small, close-knit community.

The state legislature has passed several acts regarding syringe exchange programs which reduce legal risks of prosecution for users when confronted by law authorities in various situations. Wollert and Bennett explained several, mostly dealing with possession of paraphernalia materials, which are currently being enacted in Colorado.  Syringe Exchange Programs: CRS 25-1-520 allows local jurisdictions to approve the operations of syringe exchange programs whereby participants, volunteers and staff are exempt from the provisions of paraphernalia laws; CRS 18-1-711 known as the Good Samaritan Law which provides immunity from criminal prosecution for an offense when a person reports in good faith an emergency drug or alcohol overdose to a law enforcement officer, 911 system or a medical provider;  CRS 18-1-712 which allows for a non-medically trained person to administer an opiate antagonist, Naloxone, to another person whom is believed to be suffering an opiate-related drug overdose; CRS 18-18-428 which allows an exemption for possession of drug paraphernalia prior to a physical search, the person informs a law enforcement officer they have a needle/syringe on their person or home/car. If they find a fully loaded syringe, the holder can be charged with possession of the drug.

Lamar City Attorney, Garth Nieschburg, took issue with some of the laws mentioned, “From my 12 years background as a district attorney and 23 years as a district court judge, what your doing is making people immune from prosecution of crimes until they make up their mind they won’t commit a crime anymore. I think what needs to be done is they get arrested and made to undergo drug rehab.  I understand what you’re trying to do, but unfortunately people who draft these laws may be condoning this behavior.”

Clark replied that her perspective was from a community health issue, trying to lower the potential spread of disease to area residents through the sharing program. “We’re getting reports of syringes in the streets, around schoolyards and some areas which increase exposure to kids and to residents.  We can’t force a person in rehab and tell them they have to quit because it’s best for you.  I believe they should be punished for their crimes, but we’re addressing a prevention program for the entire community,” she explained.  She said that continued contact with users through a syringe sharing program opens an opportunity to steer them into rehab as well as educate them about the health risks they’re exposing themselves to.

She summarized the meeting stating that the health department is just exploring the possibilities and after addressing the program with the county commissioners, are seeking other viewpoints such as the work session with the city council. “We are going to have to gain a lot more information for a presentation to the commissioners and address available grants which can help fund the program before it becomes enacted,” she stated.

By Russ Baldwin

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