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KLEW Investigates: Controversial Syringe Exchange Programs

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Used syringes found in parks, public restrooms, and even sidewalks.

It's a problem we're familiar with here in the valley. Back in June KLEW showed you how one mother was raising awareness of tossed needles at Hells Gate State Park, and in July, a syringe was found in the bathroom at the Southway boat launch.

Lewiston police have been dealing with numerous calls of found needles, including a bucketful left on Main Street.

Threading the needle between fighting drug use and preventing harm, sterile syringe or needle exchanges are one way many states are trying to reduce communicable diseases and get used syringes off the streets. KLEW News reporter Shannon Moudy found one in our area.

Troy Henderson says, "It's pretty simple - we do a no questions asked exchange of syringes."

It's a simple formula. One that started in the 80's in western Washington. In 2005, Asotin County opened a syringe exchange of their own.

Brady Woodbury says, "Used needles for clean needles."

IV drug users bring in used needles and nurses do one-for-one exchanges. All used needles would later be incinerated.

During those visits nurses would offer information on proper needle disposal and recovery. Brady Woodbury says on average they saw 40 people every month.

Woodbury says, "Several thousand needles per month in those 40-ish exchanges. People who were bringing needles in were bringing in bundles of needles."

But that's not the case anymore - at least in Asotin County.

Inside Whitman County's public services building lies one of the only syringe exchange programs within 100 miles of the LC Valley.

Troy Henderson oversees the program.

Henderson says, "We put them all in the big red can and then when it's full we call and have it removed."

After Asotin County's program lost funding in December 2011, some of those users started traveling to Colfax.

While they never take personal information, Woodbury says license plates offered a clue into who was using their service.

Woodbury says, "Probably about half of the needles we exchanged were from people from Idaho."

The North American Syrnge Exchange Network, or NASEN, lists 17 programs in Washington state. But just across the border in Idaho, there are zero.

Henderson says, "I don't want to speak exactly [to] why Idaho chooses to do it or not do it. There are, I think, some controversies with some folks."

Woodbury says, "A lot of the critics to needle exchange programs say taxpayer dollars shouldn't be used for supporting people to use drugs, to use illegal drugs."

And according to Idaho law a needle exchange would actually be illegal.

State statute makes it a felony to distribute drug paraphrenalia for use of controlled substances.

Henderson says, "From us it's a pretty straight forward public health service. Not only for people who are using the needles but to keep the needles out of the public."

Hepatitis and HIV/AIDs are the major diseases these programs are targeted towards in terms of prevention.

Henderson says, "Not only is there a lot of research that shows that it helps keep used needles out of the community, but it also helps reduce the rates of various communicable diseases."

While the debate about how to deal with America's drug problem rages on, Henderson and Woodbury both agree this service is necessary.

Woodbury points to the numbers in August of 2012, just one month before their program ended.

Woodbury says, "We exchanged over 10,000 needles that month, just in little Asotin County."

In Colfax, they maintain a steady stream of around 10 users per month. Henderson says the program has been successful mainly because they haven't been overwhelmed by demand and the program is relatively inexpensive. He says they have no plans of ceasing the exchange.

In Asotin County, Woodbury is still hopeful their program will someday be revived.

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