In a split vote, the Utah County Commission voted Tuesday to oppose the creation of a needle/syringe exchange program in Utah County.
Syringe exchange programs have been started across the country, including in Salt Lake City, with the intent of preventing communicable diseases by discouraging the re-use of syringes used to inject drugs, and providing an avenue to get people into treatment programs.
The idea of bringing such a program to Utah County was discussed informally at a series of town halls the commission held over the past few months to brainstorm ideas for addressing opioid addiction in Utah County.
Commissioner Bill Lee put the resolution on Tuesday’s commission agenda declaring that the commission opposes the establishment of a Utah County needle exchange program and that Utah County resources shall not be used to facilitate the creation or operation of any needle exchange programs.
Lee said he worried that such a program would increase the amount of used needles discarded around the community. Lee also said he was concerned about legal implications, including potential lawsuits should someone overdose using a county-distributed needle.
“With all the opportunity we have to gear up together and move forward in a direction positive for the community, this is something I’d like to see off the table so that we have the focus that would allow us to move forward with things I think we all agree on,” Lee said.
Utah County Commission Chair Nathan Ivie was the only commissioner to oppose the resolution. While Ivie said he thinks a nonprofit should run such a program, as opposed to the county government, he said he believes it’s important the county play a role in directing what a local program would look like.
“That’s why I think our involvement is critical,” Ivie said. “And especially making sure we have a touch, because for me the end goal of these things is to have people end up in treatment, to have them come there because they are looking for help, and saying, ‘Here is a therapist, here is a way into treatment, let’s get you into treatment today.’ And get them off the drugs completely. It’s one mechanism of many.”
Lee cited Orange County, California as an example in his resolution of a program that increased used, discarded needles found in public places. The only needle-exchange program in Orange County was shut down in February after Santa Ana city officials cited an increase in littered syringes in the area, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Ivie said he personally only supported a one-for-one needle exchange program to ensure that the number of needles in the community was not increased by a program, and said he believed a needle exchange ought to remain an option in Utah County.
“We look at places where it doesn’t work and say, ‘Why doesn’t it work there and how can we craft something that does work here,’” Ivie said, adding that properly implemented programs can reduce the spread of diseases like hepatitis C and HIV.
Former Utah State Rep. Chris Herrod spoke in favor of the resolution, saying that more than a decade ago, his 2-year-old child handed him a used syringe, saying, “Daddy, pokey.”
“You can imagine trying to have a conversation with a 2-year-old trying to figure out if it looks pokey or feels pokey,” Herrod said. “Because there is a dramatic difference.”
Richard Nance, Utah County’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment director, encouraged the commission to table the resolution until a later date, saying it was premature to pass it before the opioid town halls are complete.
The research, Nance said, showed that there are many fears about syringe exchange programs that turn out to be unfounded.
“Increased needles is not true, increased drug abuse is not true,” Nance said. “There are just a lot of unfounded fears where if you look at the science and the research will kind of put your mind at ease as far as the results of these things.”
Nance said he does not believe Utah County should use tax dollars to run such a program, but that there are not-for-profit entities that run such programs in the state that run syringe exchange programs. Nance encouraged the commission not to do anything that would tie its hands from looking at every option available to deal with the opioid crisis.
“We’ve been trying to solve the nation’s drug problem with criminal justice policies since the 1970s,” Nance said. “And it really hasn’t worked. “This is a public health problem, and we really need to pursue solutions that are public health based.”
Commissioner Greg Graves voted with Lee in support of the resolution, saying he thought the county was best served by focusing on prevention and treatment for opioid addiction.
The County Commission finalized a contract in June with a law firm to sue opioid manufacturers and distributors.