PHOENIX — It is a new law that is expected to save lives. In what some consider a controversial move, the state of Arizona has legalized syringe or needle exchange programs, which means those addicted to drugs now have a place to go and get clean needles for free.
The local non-profit Sonoran Prevention Works has been advocating for this legislation for several years.
"Syringe service programs save people's lives, point blank," said Haley Coles, executive director of Sonoran Prevention Works.
Until now, syringe exchange programs have had to operate "under the radar" in Arizona as by law syringes are considered "drug paraphernalia," hence possession of needles without a valid prescription could lead to legal trouble for those carrying the medical devices.
At community-based syringe service programs, Coles said those suffering from substance abuse could come to what she called a "no judgment" zone.
"People come and they bring their syringes, and we're able to, for free, give them sterile syringes," said Coles.
Sonoran Prevention Works has been hosting a syringe service program in Kingman, Arizona, out in the open after receiving a lot of community support from local law enforcement and judges.
Dusti Yamaguchi who helps organize the Kingman Harm Reduction Program said it was because of the high overdose rates, high HIV, and Hepatitis-C rates in the community. Yamaguchi added it was impacting people from all walks of life.
"It's people's parents, it's brothers, siblings, grandparents," said Yamaguchi.
Critics argue programs like these promote drug use. At one time, Arizona State Senator Nancy Barto had many concerns about a program like this. Like many, she worried needle exchanges would promote drug use and lead to used needles trashed in neighborhoods and an increase in crime.
Barto says she learned she was wrong after getting educated by former Arizona State Senator Tony Rivero, who had been a big advocate of this bill. The effort died after he lost his election, but inspired by the knowledge, Barto said she took up the cause herself, introducing the legislation last year, and then once again this year.
"I felt so strongly about it," said Barto.
The one thing that changed her mind, she added, was data. Numbers showing the morbid reality and increasing overdose fatalities that could have been prevented in Arizona.
In 2018, Barto said numbers showed two overdose deaths a day in Arizona. In 2019, that increased to four overdose deaths a day.
"And then preliminary data in 2020 started out at, you now, an increase above that. The latest data is showing five deaths per day. We are not going in the right direction," added Barto.
She said she also realized Arizona was in the minority and behind other states in having programs like the syringe exchange service programs exist.
Data also showed that those addicts associated with a syringe service program were more likely to ask for help in the future.
"They get a clean needle in exchange for a dirty one, which prevents disease which is also another huge benefit of having them, but when they participate, they also get information about treatment and referrals. They get screened, they get vaccinated if they like. There's a plethora of services they get," said Barto.
Many lawmakers behind this bill also realized addicts would go to any length to feed their addiction.
Coles understands that desperation.
"People will use any syringe that is available oftentimes," said Coles.
"My personal experience, I went into many pharmacies looking for sterile syringes, but because there was so much stigma and because syringe services were illegal, pharmacists would not sell syringes to me," she added. To fill the void and feed her addiction, Coles said she just started using other people's syringes.
"Putting myself at risk for HIV and Hepatitis-C," she added.
Sonoran Prevention Works was also instrumental in helping pass laws that legalized the sale of Naloxone or Narcan to the community, to help reverse opioid overdose.
In the last five years, Coles said the non-profit had handed out more than a half-million doses of the drug and saved 15,000 lives.
At community-based syringe exchange programs, Coles said they often heard from addicts who wanted to go into recovery and asked for help finding resources to help get them clean.
Advocates are trained to offer a wide range of resources to anyone who asks for help. For more information, click here.