Last week the Surry County director of health and nutrition sent a letter, meant as an informational piece, to Surry County Commissioners.
Samantha Ange’s letter simply stated that Surry County was contacted in reference to piloting a syringe exchange program for injection drug users if a program is implemented in North Carolina.
Commissioner Larry Phillips conveyed his concerns regarding the program at a board meeting. Phillips was concerned that the program, if implemented, would not address the root of the problem — illegal drug use.
When I wrote the initial article regarding the possibility of a syringe exchange program I knew it would stir up some conversation. However, I didn’t know how much. When the article ran last Friday I was hit with feedback from as near as the corners of our newsroom and as far away as Washington, D.C.
As I sat down at my desk in hopes of quietly riding out another week here at The Mount Airy News, my first call came from Raleigh. The N.C. Department of Health wanted to clear some things up. In short, its spokesman said that there was not yet a proposal for any syringe exchange pilot program prepared.
Shortly after that an email came in from Mary Beth Levin, who is a professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. Levin was passionate about her beliefs regarding needle exchange programs. However, what impressed me more than her passion was that she backed up her thoughts with solid logic and statistics.
Levin was able to rebut every argument against the program. Levin told me that allowing localities to go ahead with needle exchange programs would require no additional federal funds. It would simply allow towns to utilize funds that are already available to run the exchange programs.
Levin also told me that needle exchange programs are coupled with treatment for drug addicts. Additionally, the fiscal conservative in me was impressed with the fact that money can be saved. In short, Levin’s numbers showed that running a needle exchange program is much cheaper than paying for the healthcare of a person afflicted with HIV or Hepatitis C.
The Georgetown professor also told me that the programs can help keep our guys and gals in blue a little safer on the streets. She said the immunity that is attached to needle exchange programs make injection drug users less fearful of declaring that they have needles if they are arrested.
That cuts down on accidental needle sticks when law enforcement personnel frisk an individual. Levin even said that oftentimes folks who use needle exchange programs are issued membership cards, making it OK for them to have needles — including ones with drug residue. The programs don’t give criminals immunity if they are caught with the drug itself.
If I had no thoughts or feelings of my own, I would have been sold after my discussion with Levin. However, as most of our readership knows, I’m not one to be caught without an opinion.
I’m also not a person who is without compassion. Watching a drug user’s life spiral out of control from the sidelines is emotionally tasking. I’ve seen addiction take over the lives of friends and acquaintances. I also watched a number of young soldiers throw away their lives as a result of drug use.
None of what Levin said nor my compassionate feelings toward users changes the fact, however, that drug use is illegal here in North Carolina. When I grew up, my parents, and society as a whole, painted a clear picture for me of what is right and what is wrong.
It seems as if our society has changed though. We’ve taken what used to be white and what used to be black, and we now have a whole bunch of gray. I don’t like the message that programs such as a needle exchange program send to the next generation of Americans.
The world is, of course, a changing place. Perhaps I’m too narrow-minded, too conservative or simply behind the times. I think it’ll be hard for a parent to tell a child that drugs are simply wrong as they stand in front of the desk at the county health department watching somebody come in and get new needles with which they plan to shoot up.
Again, maybe I’m a hard-liner, but for all of Levin’s diligent research there is no way she or any other proponent of needle exchange programs can rebut one fact — drugs are illegal. Thus, our society has declared them wrong. Any other message continues to blur the lines of right and wrong.
Andy Winemiller is a staff writer at the Mount Airy News. Andy can be reached at (336) 415-4698 or awinemiller @civitasmedia.com.