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Syringe access programs still not fully legal in AZ

An+overdose+prevention+training%2C+organized+by+public+health+senior+Zeanna+Hawk%2C+gave+students+and+community+members+tools+needed+to+engage+in+preventive+health+methods+on+Wednesday+Jan.+30+in+the+Tubac+Room+of+the+Student+Union+Memorial+Center.
Ana Beltran

An overdose prevention training, organized by public health senior Zeanna Hawk, gave students and community members tools needed to engage in preventive health methods on Wednesday Jan. 30 in the Tubac Room of the Student Union Memorial Center.

Arizona has not fully taken the step to legalize syringe access programs like 20 other states already have, according to the Arizona Daily Star. A question that arises when thinking about these programs: Are they effective or not?

In 2018, Republican Rep. Tony Rivero introduced the Arizona Syringe Service Bill, HB-2389. The bill was supported and then passed in the State House. However, when it was sent to a special committee for discussion, it became overlooked due to the Red for Ed movement and the elections.

“It’s not the first time that that’s passed the house and then hasn’t passed the Senate so then it doesn’t go to the governor for approval for signature, but it’s been a huge step that it has even passed the House in recent years,” said  Luis Ortega, the director of programs at Southern Arizona Aids Foundation.

In 2019, Rivero reintroduced the bill, HB-2148, and like the first time, it made it past the State House but did not move any further.

SAAF has one of the three syringe access programs (SAPS) in Tucson, and its program has been operating here since 2011. 

“We have amazing, dedicated volunteers who come in and run the program on those days that we’re open,” Ortega said. “Yeah, there’s some staff oversight because we always have staff available to do HIV testing and [Hepatitis] C testing, but the actual exchange is all done by non-paid volunteers.” 

Ortega, who has been in this career for 25 years, said that the syringe exchange programs that are offered not only through SAAF, but through LifePoint and the Pascua Yaqui Tribal Exchange, are doing more than just providing clean syringes.

“We want to reduce HIV infection rates in our community,” Ortega said. “One way we know we can do that is providing free syringes to people who are going to use drugs no matter what.” 

Ortega also said that when looking at syringe access programs, a harm reduction approach must be taken.

“The harm reduction approach really came out of [areas] like Amsterdam and the Netherlands. They were really looking at their injection drug using community and trying to really be like, you know, there’s a lot of negative health outcomes associated with drug use, including overdose and death,” Ortega said.

Miguel Soto, the HIV program coordinator at LifePoint, said that the syringe exchange program at LifePoint was operating twice a week but not having enough program funding forced them to reduce to once a week.

“The program here at LifePoint has been active since 1996,” Soto said. “Previously, we were operating Wednesdays and Fridays, but we’ve had to reduce that to only Fridays because of underfunding.”

The syringe access program at LifePoint is run by Pima County, which according to Christopher Thomas, the Sonoran Prevention Works overdose prevention coordinator, is quite ironic.

“There’s a distinct irony in the fact that you can access a program, a public health program that’s provided by the county, and then walk two blocks away and be arrested for what you just got from the county,” Thomas said. “It’s a very distinct irony there.”

If the Arizona Syringe Service Bill were to pass and syringe access programs were to be legalized in the state, these programs would be able to receive the funding that they need.

“If we had legalized syringe service programs, we could get the money from primarily private, private grants and funders to run these programs,” Thomas said. “And those programs would pay for themselves if we prevented one or two HIV infections a year.”

Ortega, when talking about the research that has been done on syringe access programs, has seen impressive outcomes.

“By providing clean needles, it doesn’t increase substance use in communities,” Ortega said. “Again, the research has shown that it doesn’t increase crime at the neighborhoods where they exist. There’s a lot of unfounded fears. Yeah, all of a sudden people are like, everything’s gonna change and it’s gonna become so dangerous, and the research just doesn’t show that at all.”

Thomas said that providing access to clean syringes has proven to be very effective within the community.

“We know that it’s effective, and anybody who doesn’t think that it is, is grossly misinformed,” Thomas said. “There are literally decades of evidence to show that syringe services programs provide health care to folks that are marginalized.”

On a yearly basis, Ortega said that the number of people that have been going to the syringe access program at SAAF is quite high.

“We’re serving probably over 750 individual people who access the program on a yearly basis, which is a lot, and then on any given day, so obviously people come back multiple times and some folks have been involved for years,” Ortega said. “On any given day, we can see anywhere between, you know, 20 and 60 people come in. It depends on the day, it depends on time of year, but the program is relatively busy.”

Soto and Ortega both mentioned that the maximum number of syringes that people are able to exchange per visit is up to 100. The syringes that are brought in must be wrapped in packs of five to 10 needles.

When people come in to the program on Mondays and Wednesdays at SAAF, they are kept anonymous. Only a few questions are asked to be able to report back to the funders.

These programs also offer Naloxone, which is medication that is designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. Thomas explained that this medication is provided to the programs by Sonoran Prevention Works.

“We provide all of the Naloxone to those programs. We support them with any kind of technical assistance that they need,” Thomas said. “Some of us volunteer there, our harm reduction outreach workers navigate clients that are there to healthcare. So yeah, we support them 100 percent. We’re there probably at the various syringe programs at least three or four times a month; stocking them up with stuff, giving them literature, working with participants that are there, doing overdose prevention education.”

Thomas said that the problem here in Tucson is quite prevalent, that there are not enough of these programs here. 

“We need more of them. We need them now. We needed them 10 years ago, we’ve seen a, you know, increase in injection drug use amongst the population,” Thomas said. “And we’ve also seen Hepatitis C infections tripled during that period of time because people can’t access syringes, pharmacies sell them, they can’t get a prescription for them. So, folks depend on these programs in order to keep themselves free of communicable diseases. So, it’s a huge problem. I mean, these programs are their health care.” 

This year, a third attempt at reintroducing the Arizona Syringe Service Bill has gone into effect, but due to the coronavirus, it might be difficult for it to pass since the focus is on the pandemic.

“We tried to get bill 2608 passed this year, which was doing really well. It passed the House of Representatives in Arizona by like an eight to zero vote and then it passed unanimously out of the House, and it went to the Senate, but then COVID-19 happened and then all the bills died because everybody’s focusing on the pandemic,” Thomas said.

“Dead addicts don’t recover,” Ortega said when thinking back to a quote he heard in a harm reduction course that he took in New York.


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