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Salt Lake City needle-exchange helps safeguard health, offers hope, backers say

Amelia Prebish checks people in at a syringe exchange in Salt Lake City while another man in line disposes of used hypodermic needles on Monday, May 8. Prebish is with the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition which provides free clean needles, cotton balls and cookers for drug users in Utah as a way to fight the spread of disease. The group is trying to set up a similar syringe exchange program in Ogden.

SALT LAKE CITY — Without the free syringes from the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, more people would be getting Hepatitis C or contracting the HIV virus, Sadie Levie fears.

More people would die.

“It makes a huge difference for all of us,” said Levie, a heroin user who relies on the coalition initiative. “It’s definitely saving lives. People don’t understand how that’s possible.”

Twice a week, the coalition sets up a tent in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande district — a gathering spot for the homeless, drug addicts and dealers — and distributes syringes, cookers and other materials used by intravenous drug users like Levie. The aim is to keep users from sharing needles to prevent the spread of disease, and clients taking part in the exchange here on Monday had positive words for the coalition and group members’ efforts.

“A lot of the people are getting needles out of the garbage can and cleaning them,” said one young man, quickly walking off after collecting a bag of syringes. “These guys are awesome. I give them props.”

Such initiatives don’t come without controversy, though, and the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition’s efforts to launch a similar needle-exchange program in Ogden — dating to last January but still in limbo — have generated a strong backlash from law enforcement officials. Some don’t like the notion of handing out free needles, saying it enables drug users and condones their activity.

Beyond that, critics say handing out cookers, tiny cotton balls and other items — also provided by the coalition — amounts to a misdemeanor, distribution of drug paraphernalia.

Story continues below photo.

A man sorts hypodermic needles after picking them up at a free syringe exchange in the Rio Grande area in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 8. The Utah legislature began allowing needle exchange programs in 2016.

Levie, though, maintains that the coalition has good reason to distribute more than just needles. Sharing cookers, used to heat drugs into a liquid form, and cotton, used to filter drugs as they’re drawn into a syringe, raises the risk of passing infected blood from one person to another, just like swapping needles.

“Anything that your blood touches, that poses a risk,” said Levie, who started with prescription medicine after an injury and turned to heroin eight years ago.

As debate in Ogden simmers, other participants Monday offered additional reasons why needle-exchange programs are valuable. Rhonda and James Hufferd, married heroin users, say the program keeps them from having to use the same needles over and over, the alternative if not for the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition.

Repeated use of needles makes their points dull, and poking them into her skin causes abscesses, said Rhonda, sitting in a wheelchair pushed by her husband. The two are homeless and keep their possessions in a shopping cart.

“It’s a really a good program. We’re able to come in and make sure we’re safe doing it,” Rhonda said, eating from a box of convenience store popcorn chicken.

“In my case,” James Hufferd said, “it takes more force to do what I do and I get scar tissue.”

There are also more practical considerations. If not for the program, the Hufferds would likely have to buy syringes off the street, which black market vendors buy in bulk and peddle in the Rio Grande district for $2 each.

“Being addicts, you don’t want to spend that extra money,” James Hufferd said.

Rio Grande can be a chaotic, unsettling place, drawing hardcore drug users and addicts. Some officials in Ogden worry what sort of ambiance would accompany a needle-exchange program in the city.

Zach Scott, however, an addiction counselor helping out Monday, said only a fraction of users have the unkempt appearance of many in Rio Grande. The rest wouldn’t likely stand out.

‘The worst’

While combatting the spread of disease and health considerations are key elements of needle-exchange programs, the benefits don’t stop there, proponents say. The Salt Lake City needle-exchange program launched last December and another started in Sandy just last week, on May 1.

Justine Murray, a volunteer helping out Monday, said the programs also help in building rapport with drug users, a relationship that can lead to change — even rehabilitation. She’s with Youth Futures, a youth homeless shelter in Ogden that’s teaming with the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition in trying to establish an Ogden needle-exchange program.

“Whatever their choice is, we will continue to be here with this,” Murray said. “We meet people where they’re at.”

Levie lauded what she sees as the supportive, nonjudgmental demeanor of coalition volunteers, a contrast to the colder, more bureaucratic bearing of other social workers she’s encountered. “They’re very real. They’re very honest. They’ve very open and above all, they understand. Addiction is so complex,” she said.

Mindy Vincent, who leads the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, said two people she knows of have entered into rehabilitation programs as a result of the group’s outreach. Likewise, some taking part Monday said they aspire to rehabilitation, even if they’re still using, and program backers say creating rapport can be one step in edging them forward on that road.

“The worst, the worst,” Rhonda Hufferd said, alluding to the grip of heroin. The cost of rehabilitation, her husband said, has been the sticking point preventing them from entering a methadone program.

Levie, too, cited the expense of rehabilitation as a roadblock. But she’d like a shot at some sort of program.

“For me, that would be a miracle. That would change my whole life,” she said.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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