Local Harm Reduction Programs Under Siege

    When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved Needlepoint Sanctuary to be a mobile syringe provider in Bangor, Maine, in January, the harm reduction organization assumed it was a good thing.

    Needlepoint had already been operating as a syringe provider in three locations around the city for five years, but according to executive director Willie Hurlie, the CDC certification gives it access to state funding.

    Upon learning about Needlepoint’s certification in March, however, the city of Bangor responded by stating its disapproval of the organization’s two downtown locations—one in Pierce Park, by the public library, and another in Pickering Square, near a bus hub. Needlepoint fears it could be fined if it continues operating in those places without a permit from the city.

    “While a [syringe service program] does not result in syringe waste per se, as a community the amount of syringe waste within our public spaces presents a public health risk to all,” said a March 21 letter from City Manager Debbie Laurie to Bangor City Council.

    Filter previously reported on how officials in Bangor, as in other places, have used “syringe litter” as a pretext to restrict harm reduction services.

    Laurie said she told CDC representatives that Needlepoint should find alternative sites on private property. She said community members have expressed significant concerns” about the two downtown locations.

    “We need to start aggressively fighting back against these municipalities.”

    Bangor is just one of numerous cities suppressing or pushing back on harm reduction efforts in the midst of an unprecedented overdose crisis. Politicians in Philadelphia want to cut funding to syringe service programs (SSP) as the city’s Kensington neighborhood, in particular, grapples with harms and deaths related to tranq dope. Police in Boise and Caldwell, Idaho, raided harm reduction organizations in those two cities in February. Meanwhile, an SSP in Atlantic City, New Jersey, recently settled after suing the city for trying to shut it down.

    Bangor’s opposition comes as the city is dealing with an HIV outbreak, with five confirmed new cases in a six-month period among people who inject drugs, as of March 25, according to Maine CDC.

    “We need to start aggressively fighting back against these municipalities,” Hurlie told Filter, “because it’s just fucking absurd that they find out about an HIV cluster outbreak and they’re like, ‘You know what, now’s the time to ban the syringe service program downtown.’”

    Bangor’s library board also passed a resolution stating it strongly opposed the distribution of “drug paraphernalia” in Pierce Park or any space adjacent to the library, because it “perpetuates a culture of open and unsafe use” and increases “the burden on library staff to constantly monitor for and reverse opioid overdoses.”

    David Warren, a spokesman for the city of Bangor, told Filter the city “supports a compassionate approach to those struggling with substance use.” But he added that the city is opposed to having SSP in those two places.

    “Pickering Square and Pierce Park are both popular public areas, with families, teenagers and senior citizens often using them or passing by,” he said. “Pierce Park is adjacent to the Bangor Public Library, which offers a variety of programming for children and young families. The City doesn’t believe a needle exchange program in proximity to either of these locations is in the best interest of Bangor residents.“

    Bangor’s opposition to certain SSP locations is less sweeping than that seen elsewhere, however.

    In Philadelphia, harm reduction workers have become the national face of helping people who use tranq—a combination of illicit opioids and the animal tranquilizer xylazine, which is linked with increased risk of overdose, severe wounds and amputations—amid intersecting crises of poverty and homelessness.

    The importance of front-line harm reduction there has been recognized with visits from White House “drug czar” Rahul Gupta. Yet, as Filter has recently reported, Philadelphia harm reduction organizations are dealing with escalating law enforcement-, budget- and property-related crackdowns.

    “It hurts deeply to know that leadership is so dismissive of my work and my team, and our mission.”

    As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, Mayor Cherelle Parker (D) wants to cut around $1 million in funding to Prevention Point, a harm reduction organization that has been providing sterile syringes and HIV testing in the city for 30 years.

    “I will fight tooth and nail to make sure that not one city dollar is invested in the distribution of clean needles,” Parker previously stated.

    City staff have said the cuts will likely lead to spikes in HIV transmissions.

    Savage Sisters, an organization that provides wound care, naloxone training and overdose reversals in Kensington, will be losing its storefront space once its lease is up in September. The property is owned by developer Shift Capital, which has told media outlets it remains “supportive of community-minded organizations.”

    Executive Director Sarah Laurel told Filter the lease termination news came after a contentious meeting the group had with Councilmember Quetcy Lozada (D). “Her ultimate goal was to remove all harm reduction groups from her corridor, which is Kensington.”

    Lozada, who reportedly urged Shift Capital not to renew the lease, told the Inquirer that Prevention Point and Savage Sisters have “not been good neighbors.”

    “It hurts deeply to know that leadership is so dismissive of my work and my team, and our mission,” Laurel said. “Because we spend every single day dealing with the hardest, ugliest, most brutal parts of our city and the community. And we do it with love and intention.”

    The city, she continued, may not understand the consequences of its crackdown until it’s too late. “The most obvious impact is going to be death. The community is going to suffer, you’re going to see infectious diseases spread at a higher rate, you’re going to see amputations increase.”

    According to city data, over 1,400 people died of unintentional overdose in 2022, up 11 percent from 2021, with Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately impacted.

    Philadelphia’s public health department did not respond to Filter’s request for comment.

    As for how local harm reduction groups can fight back against cities’ hostility, Atlantic City’s SSP, operated by the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, may offer one clue.

    The organization, which provides the area’s only SSP, sued after the city adopted an ordinance in 2021 prohibiting it from distributing syringes.

    “Having a place for someone to go, a place where they can trust that they will not be judged, is super-important.” 

    A favorable settlement came in January, as the climate for harm reduction improves across New Jersey. In 2023, two years after the South Jersey AIDS Alliance got a temporary restraining order against Atlantic City, New Jersey amended its Bloodborne Disease Harm Reduction Act “to limit a municipality’s ability to reduce or terminate the provision of syringe access services,” according to the organization’s news release.

    In addition to declaring the city’s ordinance null, the settlement requires the city to give the group advance notice of any planned land-use changes that would impact its ability to distribute syringes.

    New Jersey also removed harm reduction supplies, including xylazine test strips, from its drug “paraphernalia” laws in January.

    By giving out supplies to help reduce their harm, we show [people] that we care for them and want to protect them and keep them safe,” Georgett Shelton, president and CEO of the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, told Filter.

    “Having a place for someone to go, a place where they can trust that they will not be judged, is super-important.” 



    Photograph (cropped) by Governor Tom Wolf via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Manisha is a New York-based journalist who covers drug policy. Her VICE News documentary, Beyond Fentanyl, won a 2023 Emmy for outstanding health or medical coverage.

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