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Critics question needle exchange program

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One program that neighbors bring up repeatedly as failing to address their concerns is the needle exchange program run by Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless since 1988.

If the exchange program were successful, neighbors ask, why are there so many discarded syringes lying around? On the streets, in the park, in people’s yards and on sidewalks?

Further, they wonder why AHCH doesn’t mandate that participants enroll in treatment programs to wean themselves off of drugs so that they no longer need needles.

Jennie Metzler, executive director of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, says the purpose of the program is not about getting people off drugs; rather, it’s intended to “prevent the spread of infectious diseases, like HIV or Hepatitis C, related to using, re-using and sharing needles.”

The needle exchange program is funded by the state Department of Health and complies with its model.

“We don’t require treatment, but we offer it so people can reduce or eliminate their use, but it’s up to them,” Metzler says.

The important thing is to keep people engaged.

“If someone has a toothache, they will come in, and then we can offer additional services and then engage and build other relationships,” she says, noting it works the same way for drug addicts seeking a sterile syringe.

Metzler points to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show if someone is enrolled in a needle exchange program, that person is five times more likely to eventually enter substance abuse treatment.

“It might not be in alignment with people’s beliefs or values about drug abuse, but it is evidence-based and it’s practical,” she says.

And it’s not really an “exchange” program. Most needles are distributed through Health Care for the Homeless’ outreach programs and are not based on a one-for-one exchange. That means not everyone receiving a new sterile syringe turns in an old one, which likely accounts for why needles are frequently found mixed with the trash the homeless leave behind.

The city of Albuquerque, in cooperation with Bernalillo County, recently initiated a program called SHARP, Safe Handling and Routing of Paraphernalia, as part of an effort to remove discarded syringes and needles from public spaces.

Six secure drop boxes have been placed in locations where syringes are regularly found littering the ground, including Coronado Park.

Citizens can also report finding syringes to the city’s 311 phone service or use the new One ABQ app to report its location rather than call 911 or a specific department. Residents in unincorporated areas of the county can call 798-7000. The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department or Fire Department will respond.

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