Early Warning on Heroin and Syringe Exchange?

By Scott Burris

It’s hard to believe that after all these years, all the evidence, and all the reductions in HIV among injection drug users, we still only have 15 states that explicitly authorize syringe exchange programs (SEPs). (See LawAtlas for an interactive map.)  CDC estimates we still have around 4,000 new cases a year by injection, so that’s reason enough to keep the SEPs we have open and start new ones where drug users are not now being reached.

Now another factor could be in play. Harm reductionists are reporting an upsurge in SEP users in places where efforts to crack down on illicit pill use have started to bite.  A lot of these users are reportedly young, under 25, and at serious risk of getting HIV or HCV.

So far we only have anecdotal reports. It could be coincidence, or overblown.  But we should be worried: there is nothing strange about pharmaceutical opioid users moving on to heroin when pills get scarce. It would be prudent as a matter of health policy to make sure that syringe access services are available in every community where opioid users are injecting, and to make sure these programs have surge capacity.  That’s prudent policy: here on planet earth we are cutting health budgets and, I fear, ignoring the effect of pill control on heroin use.

All this reminds us how important it is to be closely evaluating the consequences of new laws and policies that are intended to reduce illicit pill use.  Their success in reducing consumption is only part of the picture: the ultimate issue of concern is that we protect the health of people who are using until they can reach a safer place in their lives.

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