Harm Reduction Advocates Brief Lawmakers on Syringe Exchange

Jan 31, 2018

Advocates for a bill to legalize syringe exchange programs in Iowa told lawmakers Wednesday it would help mitigate some effects of increasing injection drug use in the state.

Dr. Chris Buresh, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Iowa, says dirty needles are spreading HIV, hepatitis C, and a bacterial infection that reaches the heart.

So this is a big deal,” Buresh says. “And as this epidemic kind of approaches, it’s not only going to bring opioid overdose deaths, but it’s going to bring all these other things with it.”

Buresh says treating an infection that reaches the heart can cost $1 million per patient, which is often covered by Medicaid. He says giving clean needles to drug users would help prevent that.

A bill to decriminalize syringe exchange programs has been assigned to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, but it has yet to be scheduled for a hearing. It’s one of several bills this session aimed at reducing the impact of increasing opioid use in Iowa.

Sarah Ziegenhorn, executive director of the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, emphasized these programs can improve access to medication-assisted treatment.

“One model that I think is really valuable is linking people directly from needle exchange into suboxone treatment,” Ziegenhorn says.

Some legislators voiced support for the bill, while others questioned if it would promote more drug use.

“Let’s not just treat the symptoms of this problem,” says Rep. Tedd Gassman, (R-Scarville). “We have a deeper problem that we have to consider and has to be looked at as we go through this process.”

Rep. Chuck Isenhart, (D-Dubuque), who organized the session, says many lawmakers are not very familiar with the harm reduction aspect of dealing with the opioid epidemic.

“Legislators tend to think of it as a law enforcement problem, so really groups like this, presentations like this, help legislators make that transition for themselves and start understanding the problem from that different perspective,” Isenhart says.

Other bills filed this session are focused on reducing prescription opioid abuse.