As part of the program, outreach workers distribute harm reduction supply kits containing glass pipes, needles, fentanyl test strips and naloxone, a drug used to counteract an overdose.
The program comes at a significant cost to taxpayers, with the county spending over $31 million this year, a sharp increase from the previous year’s approximately $5 million expenditure.
Supporters argue that providing glass pipes may encourage individuals who inject drugs to switch to smoking, which is considered a safer alternative. But not everyone agrees with this approach.
Tom Wolf, founder of the Recovery Education Coalition and a former heroin addict, joined “On Balance With Leland Vittert” to discuss the program.
“There’s a tricky balance with this harm reduction model between keeping people safe and having them use drugs more safely, and enabling,” Wolf said. “Clean needles, syringes, I can understand. That helps stop the spread of HIV and hepatitis. Glass pipes, actually, to me crosses the line into enabling where it’s just, you know, you’re making it so easy now for someone to use drugs that you’re right, why would they ever stop?”
Wolf said when he was struggling with addiction, individuals had to pay for their drug paraphernalia, such as pipes, which deterred some from continued drug use.
“The drugs themselves on the street aren’t free,” Wolf said. “So people are coming up with money to actually purchase their fentanyl and their meth. And when I was on the street, you also had to come up with $3 to $5 to purchase a pipe. Now you don’t have to do that anymore. And that money usually just gets spent on more drugs. And that’s not necessarily the best approach.”
Although needle exchange programs are generally supported, the distribution of large numbers of pipes and other drug-related items raises questions about the long-term strategy beyond immediate harm reduction.
Wolf said the need for adequate funding for detoxification and treatment facilities should be the next step after providing harm reduction supplies.
“We’re spending so much money on the harm reduction stuff of giving people free pipes and needles and Narcan, which is fine,” he said. “But we’re not spending enough money on treatment and creating beds and a place for someone to go when they are ready for help.”
Wolf said those distributing the kits express a willingness to help when individuals are ready for treatment, but they often lack information about available treatment options.
Critics also question the effectiveness of smoking fentanyl as a safer alternative to injection.
Wolf said that fentanyl is extremely potent and can still be fatal regardless of the method of consumption due to its high absorption rate. Data supports the notion that fentanyl-related deaths continue to rise.
“We need to focus on recovery and getting people off the street and into treatment first, and then we can do these other steps along with it to keep people alive for a period of time,” Wolf said. “But there has to be a place for them to go. And we have to start drawing a line in the sand and saying that’s enough.”