Friday morning as Andrea and I were headed out to get groceries, we had an unpleasant surprise. Dumped on the boulevard by our house was what appeared to be a pile of garbage. When I took a closer look, it turned out to be a large pile of drug paraphernalia - needles, both used and unused, alcohol swabs, cotton balls, spoons, elastics, a variety of capsules (blue, pink, green and yellow), bloody paper towels and tissues, zip-lock bags. And when I say large, I mean large - more than sixty needles.
How and why this pile of garbage got there I don't know - I know that it wasn't there the afternoon before. While I'm sort of accustomed to seeing needles in the gutters as we walk downtown everyday, and on a recent walk down our back alley I found a horrendous pile of needles between a dumpster and a neighbour's fence, it was more than a little upsetting to see this, on a boulevard where children walk to school every day, and people walk their dogs.
So I called the Harm Reduction Program, and two people came to pick this stuff up. Since I had them handy, I asked a couple of questions, and the answers surprised me, and might surprise you. Since there were so many needles, I asked how many needles they hand out to any individual at any one time. The answer was, to my mind, unbelievable and indefensible.
What possible reason can there be to hand out twenty needles at one time? I suppose that an argument could be made that it saves the user repeated trips to the Harm Reduction Office. But I'm not sure what part of harm reduction is delivered by making it easier for the user to take drugs - I would have thought that reduction meant encouraging less use, not more. And of course, more needles makes it easier to share, and increase the number of drug users, not decrease.
The other piece of rather surprising information is that it's not really a needle exchange program, despite the name. To get those twenty needles, the user does not have to turn in twenty needles. Nope. Not even one. The rather impressive figures handed out to illustrate the success of the program count every needle turned in as a return. But that includes the needles that are placed in drop boxes, the needles picked up by the Fire Department, and the needles picked up by the Harm Reduction Program, including the sixty-odd that they picked up on Friday from the boulevard outside my home. That's how they get a shortfall of only 81,196 needles from the 2012-13 year, when they handed out 1,278,150 needles and got back 1,196,854.
I think that using the phrase needle exchange is being somewhat misleading - no exchange takes place. Needles go out, needles come back, but needles are not exchanged. I also think that handing needles out in such large numbers in a single transaction is only making the problem worse, and I really don't see how the city can support such a program.
I understand that providing needles helps to prevent other complications. But I resent the program being presented as something other than what it is, and numbers being used to present as rosy a picture as possible. Develop a program with some realistic controls, be honest about how it's working, and maybe we can work together to reduce the number of needles that keep showing up on our streets.
"Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth." - Buddha