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Questions raised over Tempe needle exchange program

Posted at 10:38 PM, Jul 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-20 01:38:03-04

TEMPE, AZ — Needle exchanges are technically illegal in Arizona, but that does not stop dozens of volunteers from passing out thousands of syringes every single week across the Valley.

"Clearly, the fact that drugs being illegal is not stopping this is from happening. What we choose to do is take a harm reduction approach," said Sarah Saucedo, a volunteer with Shot in the Dark.

The non-profit organization, Shot in the Dark, works to provide clean needles to anyone who wants them. The handouts often happen in parks and parking lots at dusk or dark.

Volunteers say the entire operation may be at risk, due to a lack of funding. Shot in the Dark runs almost entirely on community donations, and has been running low.

Already the group has had to shut down one of their weekly sites, as well as ration out needles to make them last longer.

"It’s hard to get large scale funding support when what you do is illegal," said Saucedo. "We have enough funding to operate at our current capacity until maybe December."

All of the volunteers know what they do puts them at risk.

"Technically distributing syringes to someone you know, or should know, to use drugs is a felony. It’s drug paraphernalia charges," said Saucedo.

The group has five or six "fixed sites" where they set-up and distribute every week, but they are sometimes forced to move due to police or property owners.

"When someone comes to a site for a shot in the dark right now, they can get one free bag of ten syringes," said Saucedo, who estimates the group serves up to 3,000 people every week.

The group also hands out fentanyl testing strips, wound care packets, condoms, needle disposal containers, and even naloxone, or Narcan.

"Studies show upwards of 80 percent of overdoses are revived using naloxone by another person that’s using drugs. Not by first responders, and not by police officers," said Saucedo, who also said many people thank them for the fentanyl testing strips.

In addition to supplies, the group works to give advice and connect addicts with resources.

"The goal here it's for nonprofits to engage people who are on drugs and recommend services that can be helpful to their addiction," said State Representative Tony Rivero, who is a Republican from Peoria representing District 21.

Each of the past two years Rep. Rivero has introduced a syringe access bill, aimed at legalizing the work of Shot in the Dark and preventing the spread of diseases.

“This is going to be our third time, and we are going to be better prepared,” said Rep. Rivero.

Rivero said while needle exchanges are typically a Democrat-led initiative in other states, he thinks it makes sense for both parties.

“It will reduce the spreading of HIV...and hepatitis,” said Rivero. “Two, it's a public safety issue. People won’t be concerned to disclose to law enforcement that they are carrying a needle.”

He also notes that if fewer people contract diseases, it will save taxpayers millions in medical bills.

“But the flip side would be, are we encouraging a bad habit,” said Lynn Robinson, who told ABC15 she was torn on the issue.

Shot in the Dark is hoping community donations sustain them into 2020, and then legislation legalized the entire operation and brought their efforts into the light.

“It's giving people the tools to say alive, if and when they are ready to stop using drugs,” said Saucedo.

You can learn more about Shot in the Dark, and donate here.