Majority say 'harm reduction' program could help addicts, ease needle litter

·4 min read

Sep. 17—A majority of area residents would apparently support program to help alleviate the problems of used syringes and needles found in city parks.

Cherokee County Health Services Council Activities Coordinator Marcus Buchanan wanted to know the public's opinion on "harm reduction" programs, and the matter was discussed in a recent Saturday Forum on Facebook.

"I have seen and heard several complaints about individuals finding syringes at local parks and trails," Buchanan said.

Tahlequah Police Chief Nate King said bike patrol officers have seized large amounts of drugs and paraphernalia off the bike trail within the past six months. King has said in the past that the increase of drugs and paraphernalia found in public areas is linked to the rise of homelessness and an amended law that lessens the penalties for these crimes.

"It's not the entire homeless population, but in the end, the people who are frequenting the parks that are using drugs are mostly people who are experiencing homelessness," said King.

Oklahoma Bill 511 would create a legal framework for harm reduction programs. Experts say these type of programs reduce the chance of someone contracting diseases by 50 percent.

During the Sept. 11 Saturday Forum, TDP readers were asked what they thought about "harm reduction" programs, and whether they'd volunteer to collect syringes around the city. Many thought such a program would be a good idea, but some had other priorities.

Troy Shatwell believes a hold should be placed on providing free help to addicts until those with diabetes and cancer can get their treatment for free.

"Why are we willing to help those that, for the most part, choose to take drugs and then get addicted to them, but somebody born with a medical condition gets charged insane amounts of money for [treatment] even if they are fortunate to have insurance?" Shatwell asked.

Adrien Nong, owner of Start in Tahlequah, said he's found syringes outside around his business on more than one occasion.

"I'd rather have a dedicated, safe disposal method than just having to throw them in the trash," he said.

A woman said she worked with the addict community in Seattle, and "harm reduction" was viable in assisting addicts with sobriety.

"It help mitigate many other diseases and health issues that otherwise could have been an issue. Not to mention, it helped give them their dignity and some control in their lives," said Lee Longman.

Martha Zamora said properly disposing of syringes that are lying around the city would not only help reduce litter, but also safeguard users who wouldn't turn to a dirty needle.

"People who are struggling with addiction need help, not judgment. Throwing them in cages and [deeming] them not worthy does not solve the problem," said Zamora.

King said a needle exchange program would help with diseases passed through shared needles, but it wouldn't ameliorate the drug abuse problem itself.

"It would clean up our parks a little bit and might help on less Hepatitis C, HIV, and things we see from dirty needles being used," he said.

All TPD officers keep sharps disposal containers in their patrol vehicles for when they find a needle on an arrestee, or someone else finds one in the park.

"Those can transmit communicable diseases, so we handle those very carefully, and we carry these sharps containers in our vehicles, and place them inside so that way, there's no danger to anyone else," said Sgt. Justin Leatherwood.

Once a sharps container is full, it is taken inside the police station and disposed into a bigger container. TPD Capt. Steve Arnell said the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation will then take the containers and properly destroy the syringes and paraphernalia.

Possession of a controlled dangerous substance is now a misdemeanor, and the maximum jail time is one year. The maximum fine is $1,000, and the penalty does not change based on the number of times the user is caught. Hypothetically, if someone is arrested for a small amount of meth 17 different times, he can only be charged with a misdemeanor each time.

After a vote of the people of Oklahoma in 2017, the law changed to make the first offense of possession — including marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin — a misdemeanor. Subsequent offenses for possession are still misdemeanors.

What you said

The TDP asked readers on its website what they thought about a program to help up used paraphernalia from city property, and needle exchanges and other programs to prevent disease among addicts. Thirty-two percent support a combination of exchange, cleanup, plus increased mental health and detox programs. Twenty-seven percent support cleanup and the exchange, whereas 17 percent are for the cleanup but not the exchange; society shouldn't help addicts, they said. However, 12 percent support neither, believing addicts should be left to deal with their own problems. Seven people said those who don't pick up their "gear" should be prosecuted, but they do support the exchange. Almost 3 percent were undecided.

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