Heroin use, dirty syringes must be addressed, and fast

The OlympianOctober 4, 2013 

An intern gathers health information as a man disposes used syringes at the Thurston County Public Health and Social Services needle exchange van in a downtown a Olympia parking lot on Thursday, April 9, 2009. (The Olympian file)

TONY OVERMAN — The Olympian

Not many people who moved to Olympia for its small-town feel and the influences of higher education and a lively arts scene imagined heroin addicts injecting themselves in the restrooms of Olympia Timberland Regional Library. Nor did they probably envision dirty syringes discarded in alleys, streets and public parks.

And yet, these things are happening in our city.

It’s obvious now that Olympia has two big and growing problems: increased heroin use and the prevalence of discarded needles. Law enforcement, public health officers and elected officials say they recognize these disturbing trends, but there is no multi-jurisdictional plan to reverse them.

No politician wants to draw undue attention to this grim underbelly of our community — heroin use and the crimes it spawns — but it’s becoming too big to ignore. The Olympian editorial board believes the community needs to admit there is a problem, and then engage in open and frank conversations.

The extent of the heroin problem is partially hidden because addicts are no longer limited to the gritty alleys of Thurston County’s urban areas. Heroin use has moved into the suburbs.

We’re not unique. All over the state and across the nation, people hooked on prescription painkillers are finding heroin easier to acquire and less expensive to buy. And heroin provides a more intense high than prescription opioids, such as Oxycontin.

If that wasn’t troubling enough, heroin use has become popular among school-age teens. National studies show that 3 percent of high school students are using heroin today. The incidence of teen heroin deaths is climbing, along with the number of teens seeking treatment for heroin addiction.

Twenty years ago, Thurston County started a Syringe Exchange Program (SEP). The goal was to prevent the spread of HIV, which was a public health crisis at the time. Later, it was credited with stopping transmission of other blood borne diseases, such as hepatitis B and C.

Critics of SEPs like Thurston County’s program question whether exchanges have played a significant role in reducing the spread of the diseases and suggest that clean needle programs make it easier for addicts to continue their habit. Public health officers disagree.

Joe Avalos, the manager of the Thurston-Mason Chemical Dependency Program, says in 2012 the SEP gave out 914,000 syringes and collected more than 950,000. The program is on track for a 25 percent increase in exchanged syringes in 2013.

Dr. Diana Yu, chief health officer for Thurston and Mason counties, says getting needles off the streets and out of parks has always been a side benefit of the program. She points to the statistics that says the SEP collects more needles than it exchanges.

Those numbers may be accurate and well documented, but no one has provided a definitive answer about the origin of the discarded needles being found around Olympia.

In August, Olympia’s parks maintenance department started tracking the number of discarded syringes found in city parks. In less than two months, they found 207. City Manager Steve Hall says Olympia has requested a study session with the Thurston County Health Department to begin understanding the problem, and how the city might address it.

Each one of those syringes could have injured and infected a child or an adult innocently using a park they expected to be safe. That’s not acceptable. Citizens expect a safer community.

Let’s get this conversation started and out into the open.

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