Syringe exchange programs, like the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, provide clean needles and other supplies to intravenous drug users free of charge, arguing that this reduces the rates of HIV and hepatitis C. When I first heard this, I was surprised. Wouldn’t this encourage more drug use by making it easier to shoot up?
Then I dug a little deeper into the evidence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that syringe exchange programs do in fact dramatically reduce the rates of HIV and hepatitis C, while other studies demonstrate that drug users who have contact with these programs are five times more likely to enter drug treatment. There is also huge cost savings of over $7 in medical treatment for every $1 spent on these programs.
Perhaps most importantly, there is no evidence suggesting that these programs increase drug use. How could this be? I believe now the answer is simple: people who get high are going to get high, period. The cleanliness of the needle counts for little when the disease of addiction takes hold, and the compassionate response is, at the very least, to reduce the potential for harm that used needles contain.
Therefore, it is time for Iowa to join the 28 states that explicitly authorize syringe exchange programs. It makes sense from a public health perspective and from a cost-savings perspective. Ultimately, these programs protect Iowans suffering in the grip of addiction from even more threatening disease.