A syringe exchange in Wayne County, Indiana could close in June if lawmakers don’t renew the program. Although local health officials are pushing to keep it open and say it’s doing its job well, the local prosecutor claims it fuels illegal activity and syringe litter.
The syringe program opened in August 2016, initially operating once-a-month before it was expanded to weekly service in 2017. In 2018, the county Board of Commissioners renewed it for two years. They now have to decide if they will do the same again.
“The syringe exchange program did not cause the needle problem in this community,” said county Health Director Christine Stinson in testimony to the Board of Commissioners on May 6. “The needle problem in this community caused the need for the syringe exchange program. Unfortunately, that’s not gone. We’re doing our part to reduce disease transmission.”
Data show that new hepatitis C cases in Wayne County dropped from 187 in 2017 to 133 in 2019. That meant that it went from having the sixth-highest rate in the state to having the ninth-highest—still about double the state average. In 2017 Wayne County also had about four times as many opioid-involved overdose deaths per capita as the state overall.
But County Prosecutor Mike Shipman has argued for years against the program. He told commissioners that his office issued 190 charges for illegal syringe possession in 2019. He detailed instances where syringes and other materials distributed by the program were found at the homes of people accused of dealing drugs. He also claimed that syringe litter is being discarded in public in Richmond, the county seat, and that police officers had been stuck by them.
Indiana’s laws that criminalize syringe possession are in fact what’s putting police officers at risk, according to the Indiana Recovery Alliance. Because people in possession of syringes risk being charged under drug paraphernalia laws, they may lie to officers during a search. Officers may then be stuck by needles that people are trying to hide.
Syringe criminalization also encourages improper disposal, driving people to litter them in public to avoid being caught with them. Instead of shutting down syringe exchanges, the solution, say experts and advocates, is to give people with syringes immunity when they are apprehended by police.
Wayne County police finding syringes in the homes of “accused drug dealers” should also not be surprising. People who use drugs and people who sell them are heavily overlapping groups. Indiana’s drug laws are also likely implicating people for selling drugs who in fact are not doing so. For example, possession of over three grams of heroin is automatically charged as a felony distribution offense.
Shipman is demanding that if the program continue, it should mandate that participants seek treatment for substance use disorder before receiving any syringes. He compared it to his office’s pre-trial diversion program. But the syringe exchange is designed to reduce viral diseases like HIV or hepatitis C, not to stop people from using drugs. Mandating treatment for anyone who needs syringes would raise a significant barrier to access, and the treatment itself could do more harm than good.
The battle over Wayne County’s program mirrors those elsewhere in the state—currently, nine Indiana counties have such programs. Earlier this year, state lawmakers fought over whether or not to keep the programs open past next year. The outcome was an extension to a sunset clause, which means funding for the programs is now set to expire on June 30, 2021.
Filter has previously reported on other severe challenges inflicted by law enforcement on people who use drugs in Indiana—including the refusal of a local police department to administer naloxone during the pandemic, and a prosecutor’s decision to treat naloxone use as “probable cause” to seek drug charges.