Programs that let heroin users trade their used needles in for clean ones polarize Humboldt County and the debate around hard drug use.
“The best way to deal with a harm reduction program is an open dialogue,” Brandie Wilson, executive director of the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction, or HACHR, said.
Wilson has been the target of physical threats from community members for running one of Eureka’s needle exchange programs.
“I’ve been told I need a bullet between my eyes,” Wilson said. “Someone also told me I need my teeth kicked in.”
Wilson’s car was also vandalized outside of city hall in February.
“I feel unsafe when I go to the city council meetings,” Wilson said.
Holding a masters in sociology, Wilson has been advocating for marginalized groups in Humboldt for years.
“This started because someone I’d been dating died of an overdose New Year’s Day 2012. A lot of people in my life have been dealing with Hepatitis C,” Wilson said. “That’s why I’m so passionate, this is my fight.”
The Eureka city council met again on March 20 to re-read and vote on a needle exchange ordinance that would call for increased oversight in the programs currently running in Eureka.
The ordinance passed on a 3-2 vote with council members Austin Allison and Kim Bergel voting “no.”
The ordinance calls for exchange programs to give quarterly reports to city manager, Greg Sparks, about needle exchange numbers, including exchange rates, referrals made for other services and “law enforcement incidents related to the syringe exchange programs.”
Citizens of Eureka are concerned the ordinance isn’t doing enough to keep exchange sites accountable.
“If you look at this ordinance, it has no teeth,” Eureka resident Harry Wilcox said. “Where is the enforcement? What’s the penalty if people in harm reduction aren’t doing their job?”
Eureka’s syringe exchange ordinance requires syringe exchange programs to give people that utilize the service avenues to seek treatment for substance abuse, and stick to a 1:1 needle exchange rate.
“[HACHR’s] goal is to meet people where they’re at and affect positive change in their lives,” Wilson said. “We support them through whatever progress they find appropriate.”
Jorge Reyes, volunteer coordinator of HACHR, challenged opponents of the city ordinance to gain firsthand experience at the facility, instead of spreading rumors.
“I’d like to recruit you to be volunteers at HACHR to see what we do instead of just misinformed fragments,” Reyes said.
Michelle Costantine, the leader of the watchdog group Take Back Eureka, thinks needle exchange programs need improvement.
“I’m not against harm reduction as a whole, because I do believe in a lot of aspects of harm reduction, it’s not just about needle exchange,” Costantine said. “I think the way that [syringe exchange programs] are currently run is where the problems lie, there’s no oversight.”
Oversight was a main concern for citizens that are tired of seeing used needles or “sharps” laying around Eureka, in parks, on sidewalks and in plain view for children.
“There needs to be a little more medical professionalism as far as volunteers going out and doing clean-ups,” Costantine said.
The ordinance put in place now requires weekly cleanups of needle litter around Eureka. Those numbers will be reported every three months to Dr. Donald Baird, the medical professional in charge of oversight at HACHR.
“It wasn’t until the last couple of years where we started having these major issues with the needle litter. We weren’t seeing half of what we’re seeing now,” Costantine said.
Nathan Edward Lockhart, a 33-year-old homeless man, uses Wilson’s harm reduction center frequently.
“HACHR helps with cleaning up the community,” Lockhart said.
He has been using heroin for five years and says he uses the drug on a daily basis.
“[HACHR] allows us to have clean needles, Band-Aids and medical supplies, sanitary supplies to make our usage safer, cleaner and reduce risk for the spread of disease and infection as well as abscesses,” Lockhart said.
Syringe exchange programs have been found to increase the chance of people using them to seek treatment for drug abuse by five times.
The American Medical Association also supports the study of how supervised injection facilities, a place where self-provided intravenous drugs can be administered under the supervision of a medical doctor, help to reduce the transmission of bloodborne illnesses like the HIV virus.
“We’re enabling people to be autonomous human beings, connect with other people. Enabling people to make plans to get out of chaos in their life. Syringe exchange is a part of harm reduction,” Wilson said.
This article was changed from its original version on March 31 at 2:25 a.m.