Officials say needle exchange program effective

By William Thompson

The New Mexico Department of Public Health’s syringe exchange program is gaining acceptance in Quay County. The program is designed to prevent the spread of blood-borne pathogens, including HIV, by offering intravenous drug users, and anyone who uses needles on a regular basis, proper disposal of dirty needles.
Dee Reed, nursing director of Quay County Public Health, said around 1,000 needles were exchanged in December at the Quay County drop site.
“We don’t want to tell the public where the site is because most people using the program want the location to remain confidential,” Reed said.
Reed and two officials from the department of public health, Bea Levy and Phillip Fiuty, spoke to a group of local law enforcement and health professionals Wednesday at the Tucumcari Police Department. Levy said southeastern New Mexico has a relatively low rate of HIV infections and she said the needle exchange program may be able to keep it that way.
“One third of all adult AIDS cases are related to injection drug use,” said Levy. “We’ve been very lucky in this state and we want to keep it that way. Collection of used syringes gets the syringes off the street and off bike trails in parks.”
The health department’s needle exchange program allows enrolled members to transport dirty needles to a health department site where the needles may be exchanged, one for one.
If an enrolled member is stopped by police while transporting the needles, the member can present a card to the officer and thus avoid a possession of drug paraphernalia charge, Levy said. That immunity to being charged is negated if illegal drugs are found.
Tucumcari’s Interim Chief of Police Mark Radosevich said his officers are aware of the needle program and support its aims.
“Even the new officers are aware of how the program works,” Radosevich said. “It has taken awhile for everybody to get used to the program.
Fiuty, the statewide coordinator of the program, said regulations governing the program nay be modified in the near future.
“Law enforcement officials have raised the issue of coming into contact with dirty needles when they stop someone transporting the needles,” Fiuty said. “I’m working on a new regulation that will require used syringes to be in some kind of hard container.”
Fiuty said he also may work to require that all program members be required to immediately tell officers of any needles when they are stopped. Currently, it is not required but health officials suggest to all members that they tell the officer immediately.