The long debated needle-exchange ordinance passed with a 5-3 vote at Thursday’s Scott County Fiscal Court meeting.
A version of the ordinance was killed in December when, with two magistrates absent, Magistrate Kelly Corman moved to vote on the event rather than table it, resulting in a 3-3 “no action” vote.
The same three magistrates (Hostetler, Lyons and Corman) who opposed the ordinance in December continued to oppose it Thursday night. However, with a full quorum of magistrates, the yeas outweighed the nays, and the ordinance will now be taken up by Georgetown City Council before it becomes law.
Despite long-standing debate on the ordinance, there was considerable opposition from the community regarding the ordinance at the meeting.
County Judge-Executive Joe Pat Covington cited the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC)studies and stated that the data has lead him to support the ordinance, but multiple community members had concerns about the ages of those participating in the program, the number of syringes distributed and proper disposal of needles.
The current version of the ordinance requires that participants in the program provide their age and zip code, however no ID or name is required, leading to concerns that minors could participate in the program.
According to Dr. Crystal Miller, director of WEDCO Health Department, the needle-exchange ordinance is “based on best practices,” and “evidence based,” including not requiring ID.
“The reason behind the needle-exchange program is disease prevention above all,” Miller said. “People want to remain anonymous when participating in risky behavior. Not requiring the identification helps us to build trust with an already distrustful cliental.”
In this current version of the ordinance, participants may receive up to four syringes on their first and second visits. Upon the third visit, a participant may receive up to 40 syringes if they bring in 20 used syringes. Following the third visit, the exchange goes to a one-to-one basis, with participants being able to receive up to four syringes per visit.
The provision allowing for 40 needles on the third visit has drawn criticism from the community, despite the supporting magistrates arguing this number is based on CDC recommendations. Opponents of the program argued the ordinance not adhering to a one to one exchange will put more needles on the street. Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) has recently proposed legislation requiring needle exchanges statewide to exchange on a one-to-one basis.
But this approach is not evidence based according to Miller.
“Obviously, a one-to-one exchange out of the gate doesn’t make sense,” Miller said.
“We want to flood the market with clean needles,” Miller said. “This insures that even if they are giving them to friends, there are more clean needles in that community. After that third visit, once we’ve built up some trust with them, that is when we go to a one to one.
“But if we give needles one-for-one out of the gate, when that addict comes in for the first time and gets that one syringe, he or she will use it as long as possible.”
“It saddens me that Sen. Thayer would propose this legislation with no backing evidence,” Miller said. Miller went on to state that the practical effect of such legislation would be to kill needle-exchange programs statewide.
When Covington sited a CDC survey which found 90 percent of intravenous drug users studied disposed of their needles in sharps containers, there was audible laughter from the community members gathered.
“The fallacy that 90 percent of users put [needles] in a sharps container is ridiculous, unless you consider my personal yard a sharps container,” a community member said. “I’m picking up syringes in my yard.”
Sharps containers will be provided to participants in the program upon their enrollment, according to Miller. “We give every participant a way to safely dispose of their dirty needles.”
Miller also said that participants are asked to sign an agreement wherein they pledge not to use drugs on their property and to safely dispose of needles.
“We know this is a political process, and we will make certain that our clients understand this as well,” she said. “So they will know and understand that if they violate our guidelines it could put jeopardize the program.”
Miller said that one employee “trained in harm reduction,” would coordinate the needle-exchange. The proposed exchange would only be open for half a day, one day a week, she said.
Magistrate David Livingston expressed some frustration during the meeting at the expressions of doubt about the program on the eve of it’s passing.
“We’ve been talking about this for two years,” Livingston said.
“We did a reading two weeks ago. And tonight is the first time I’ve ever seen many of you…Folks, you have to be involved…I am begging the public to do your civic duty and be involved. And if you have comments and concerns, if you have data that contradicts what we’re talking about or what’s been presented to us, let us know.
“ Because if you don’t let us know, we’re not going to know.”
“This has been an extended process that the court has been working on for a long time,” Covington said. “This is a public health initiative aimed at reducing the spread of disease. The CDC’s statistics bear out that these syringe program reduce the spread of HIV and hep C.”
“I feel confident through passing this as an ordinance that we can review it in six months and look at the data,” Covington said.
The guidelines for administration of the program were formulated by WEDCO Health Department, and are based on CDC recommendations, according to Covington. “I have to depend on the recommendation of WEDCO Health Department. These are recommendations from WEDCO.
“Addicts are going to get high whether the needles are clean or dirty or wherever they got them. And then the hope is once they are in the program, they can be directed toward resources to get them off of drugs and get them help,” Covington said.
Despite Miller’s misgivings about legislation on the state level, she said she is optimistic about Scott County’s needle-exchange, and looks forward to seeing the matter put before Georgetown City Council.
“This has been a long process for us,” Miller said. “But I think time has given the councilmen time to study it for themselves. It’s long overdue. We’re the largest growing city in Kentucky. We have two interstates that run through our county. We’ve got a major drug problem in Scott County.
“I’ve spoken with Mayor Prather and I know where he stands on this. I am very optimistic about the future of the exchange and I have every confidence in our mayor.”
City Council will meet Monday, Jan. 28. The next fiscal court meeting will be a work session on Feb. 1.
Paul Watson can be reached at email@example.com.