Friday, September 19, 2008

Drug addicts shun mobile needle exchange

Far fewer needles handed out and returned since fixed-site exchange was closed

Victoria's mobile needle exchange is handing out far fewer needles to addicts than its fixed-site predecessor, statistics released yesterday show.

The experiences of Peter, who has used both services, might explain why.

Before the Cormorant Street needle exchange closed on May 31, Peter picked up a supply of clean needles every day.

"I had my routine of going down there," the 32-year-old cocaine and heroin addict, who declined to give his last name, said last night as he sat on the grass outside the Our Place shelter on Pandora Avenue. "Now I have to chase the mobile exchange all over the streets in a 10-block radius and I miss them sometimes and I end up going without clean needles."

Needle exchanges are promoted as a service that reduces the spread of disease among addicts by providing them with clean syringes to inject their drugs. But critics have also suggested that exchanges encourage illicit drug use.

A report released yesterday shows the number of needles supplied by the mobile exchange is down 23 per cent, from about 35,000 a month at the fixed site to 27,000 in August from the mobile unit.

Needles returned amount to just 40 per cent of those going out, a sharp drop from the 70 per cent return rate at the Cormorant Street exchange.

The figures were released by the Vancouver Island Health Authority and AIDS Vancouver Island in a summary of the first three months of the mobile service.

The Cormorant Street needle exchange closed after neighbours complained about illegal drug activity. The mobile service is supposed to be a stop-gap measure until a new permanent site can be located.

A decrease in needles coming back could indicate a number of things, said Katrina Jensen, executive director for AIDS Vancouver Island. "There are a number of factors, one is that they're disposing of them in other ways, like putting them in the garbage," said Jensen. Another possibility is that clients are keeping them and haven't used them yet, she said.

"Some clients may be taking extra syringes to keep them going for several months, and that's why we're not seeing those ones come back. It could also be that clients are using their own syringes and refusing ours."

There haven't been reports of a spike in the number of syringes discarded on the streets, said Jensen.

Aside from the syringes, clients aren't taking part in counselling services to the extent they did at the permanent site. There is no privacy and those working on the mobile service don't have the time, said Jensen.

"Due to the public nature of the mobile service a lot of clients aren't comfortable engaging in long conversations with workers. They just want to get their stuff and be gone."

Concern is mounting over how the mobile service will fare when cooler weather sends illicit drug users indoors, Jensen said.

Victoria Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe is concerned by the decrease in the number of needles exchanged by the mobile service.

"It concerns me that a major city does not have a fixed site," Thornton-Joe said. "It's a loss. I've always been an advocate for a fixed site which offers support and services."

Thornton-Joe has discussed the issue at meetings with the Downtown Service Providers and the clean and safe committee of the Downtown Victoria Business Association.

Thornton-Joe would like to see statistics from other local groups who hand out or take back needles. Some groups take in needles, but don't give them out, she explained.

The councillor would also like to see statistics on addicts' increased use of crack pipes, instead of needles.

"I'm hearing from street nurses that people are re-using needles and health issues are going to increase because of that," said Thornton-Joe.

Back on the grass outside Our Place, Peter pulled up his pant leg to show an abscess on his leg that became infected two weeks ago after he injected drugs with a dirty needle. The abscess required surgery at Royal Jubilee Hospital. But because he only runs into the mobile exchange service about every three days, Peter said he continues to put his health at risk.

"An hour ago, I had to use a dirty needle to suck dope out of a spoon and transfer it into another dirty needle and put it in my arm," he said.

Then by chance, five minutes before speaking to the Times Colonist, Peter ran into the mobile needle exchange and took a handful of syringes.

"Here's a lost soul looking for one right now," he said, handing a syringe to a young girl who sat down beside him. "If I don't give her one, she'll find one in the sewers."
source: © Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008

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