Inside the Push to Legalize Underground Needle Exchange Programs

Aug 17, 2018


Opioid-related deaths are on the rise in Iowa, and research suggests that needle exchanges may be effective in decreasing drug-related deaths.


Sarah Ziegenhorn is the executive director of Iowa’s Harm Reduction Coalition based in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. The IHRC is a direct service agency that provides harm-reducing health and social services to individuals using drugs.


Ziegenhorn says that the group’s philosophy is to meet drug users “where they’re at” - sometimes, literally.


“Oftentimes we meet people in the communities where they spend their time working, socializing. That might be in a park, it might be in their home, it might be in a local bar and restaurant. It could be somewhere as simple as in a parking lot,” Ziegenhorn says. “The idea is to engage with people and to provide services in places that are convenient and don't require people to jump through significant hoops.”


IHRC is a lead supporter of legalizing needle exchanges at the state level, and suppored the development of legislation to support this goal during the last legislative sesssion. Iowa Representative Bob Kressig (D) is a co-sponsor of a bill that would have legalized needle exchanges in Iowa. The bill never made it to the floor, and Kressig says, that's a problem.


“All they have to do is listen to the experts in the world that say [a needle exchange] would be a way that we could deal with the overall epidemic, opioids and other things," Kressig says.


Kassig thinks that the problem of treating the epidemic might just be a matter of priorities for state senators.


“This just wasn’t one of them,” Kassig says, although he and Ziggenhorn are both optimistic that a successful needle exchange bill could be in the cards for a coming legislative session.

On this hour of River to River, host Ben Kieffer talks with Ziegenhorn, Kressig, and Iowa Public Radio reporter Katarina Sostaric about harm reduction legislation and the push to legalize needle exchange programs in Iowa.