Oregon Syringe Program Fights On, After Shutdown for “Enabling”

    A syringe service program (SSP) in southern Oregon has faced local political hostility, like many others nationwide. Shut down by local officials, it has now found a way to fight on.

    HIV Alliance is a harm reduction provider based in Eugene, Oregon, that runs services in several cities throughout the state. One of those is at the Curry Community Resource Center in Brookings, a small beachside city in Curry County, close to the California state border.

    On December 8, the Brookings site was forced to suspend services. The organization told local outlet Wild Rivers Outpost that it was searching for an alternative site, because officials for the county—which owns the building—oppose their work.

    Since 2019, HIV Alliance has offered not only sterile syringes at the community center, but also HIV and hepatitis C testing, the opioid-overdose antidote naloxone, fentanyl test strips and other resources to help people who use drugs stay safe. The site had very limited hours, operating just one day a week.

    “That photo was shared with commissioners as evidence that we may be encouraging people to use at the site.”

    All three members of the Curry County Board have made statements against the harm reduction service, reported Wild Rivers Outpost. Board Chair John Herzog threatened to “go Charles Bronson,” on it. Commissioner Brad Alcorn, a retired cop, wants to invoke a city ordinance to “cut this off.” Citing former Navy SEAL and podcaster Jocko Willink’s line of “Discipline equals freedom,” Alcorn said, “Let’s follow that, not this enabling and promoting.”

    The commissioners seem to have conducted something resembling a sting operation against the SSP.

    “They apparently sent someone into the site who was given a safe injection kit that includes things used to inject, like syringes and other supplies we provide that are intended to prevent infection,” Renee Yandel, executive director of HIV Alliance, told Filter. “That photo was shared with the commissioners as evidence that we may be encouraging people to use at the site.”  

    HIV Alliance was not notified that the county commissioners would be discussing this at their most recent meeting, she noted, despite having spoken with them in the past. And the first the organization knew of the SSP being shut down was when staff members showed up to work at the county-owned building, only to be told not to set up their supplies. The Curry County Board did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment.

    “My feeling is we have been well received, that people understand what we’re doing.”

    But HIV Alliance wasn’t willing to give up on its work in Brookings. And Yandel confirmed that her organization has now found a local partner which will enable it to continue offering harm reduction services at a different site.

    “My feeling is we have been well received, that people understand what we’re doing,” Yandel said of the wider Brookings community. “Sometimes folks will express concern that syringe exchanges are encouraging drug use or bringing folks to an area, but when we can talk about their fears and concerns and share info that we have about syringe exchange, generally the response has been, ‘I understand, what you’re doing helps prevent infections and helps folks engage.'”

    Both the city of Brookings and Curry County took earlier steps to try to restrict harm reduction services, however. In May 2022, Brookings approved a city ordinance that “[prohibits] activities detrimental to the residents and visitors in all zones of the city.” It specifically bans a “supervised drug consumption facility,” and any site that allows people to use drugs. The County Board followed suit and drafted its own ordinance, also stating that “safe injection” and “drug consumption” sites were prohibited.

    Yet no such sites exist, or are planned, in Brookings or anywhere else in Curry County. HIV Alliance has always made clear that it doesn’t run a safe consumption site (SCS) or overdose prevention center, as these facilities are also known. It simply offers safer-use supplies, testing and referrals to other services. So the ordinances shouldn’t apply.

    Are local officials confusing two quite different things?

    “We have presented to the commissioners in the past about harm reduction,” Yandel said. “There are several county folks in regular communication with them who understand the difference between [SSP and SCS]. If the commissioners are confused, they have access to a lot of resources, and we reached out too back in September to talk about what we’re doing. There is willingness on our part and other folks in the county to share information if there is confusion.”

    “There’s no criminal accountability for heroin, cocaine or even fentanyl,” complained Commissioner Alcorn.

    During the Curry County Board meeting, the commissioners also criticized the drug decriminalization measure approved by Oregon voters in 2020, Measure 110. “There’s no criminal accountability for heroin, cocaine or even fentanyl,” complained Commissioner Alcorn.

    Under Measure 110, people in possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use are no longer arrested and sent to jail. Instead, they are given a small ticket—like a traffic violation. They can either pay the fine or, to have it erased, call a hotline to receive a free substance use disorder screening, with no obligation to receive treatment. Possession above the personal limits, together with any drug sales, is still subject to criminal charges.

    Just as important, Measure 110 devotes a portion of revenue from taxes on legal cannabis to expanding substance use treatment, harm reduction and housing support statewide. Organizations serving people who use drugs and unhoused people received over $300 million in the two years after the measure took effect.

    Yet political backlash frequently follows drug policy reforms. Elected officials, law enforcement and others in Oregon have been working to portray Measure 110 as leading to a spike in crime, drug use and overdose deaths. Data have shown otherwise.



    Photograph via US Department of Veterans Affairs

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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