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Jun 2009: More than needles being given to Wisconsin addicts

Mike Nichols Mike Nichols

No matter where you live in Wisconsin – Milwaukee,  Eau Claire,  Superior,  even uber-conservative Waukesha County – somebody is likely handing out clean needles to heroin addicts.

And not just needles.

Workers in the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin’s Lifepoint program also give out small bottle cap-sized “cookers” in which heroin is heated up. They distribute matches, condoms and even “pipe holders” to addicts who prefer to smoke their stuff rather than inject it.

Some users also get Narcan – an “opioid antagonist” I referenced in last week’s column about an eighth-grader in Milton whose life was likely saved by a guy who knew the kid was overdosing.

After that column ran I was able to get a copy of the Milton police report that says the adult actually injected his Narcan into the child’s shoulder twice.

I was also able to talk to Bill Keeton, director of communications for the AIDS Resource Center.

“It came from us,” said Keeton of the Narcan. “It came from our needle-exchange staff person in Madison.”

Hundreds of heroin users in Wisconsin have now been trained in how to inject Narcan, added Keeton, and he believes it has been used no less than 500 times during heroin overdoses in the state in recent years.  If that is accurate, the miasmic descent into heroin abuse in Wisconsin  is of an even greater magnitude than we’d known – and so are the efforts to countervail it.

Why, then, am I so deeply ambivalent about  the Lifepoint program?

There is little doubt it is saving lives, and not just through Narcan injections. There are 16 “prevention specialists” now working in 11 Wisconsin cities and surrounding areas; and one specialist alone, according to Keeton, has handed out  500,000 needles in the last decade.

There has been a substantial decrease in HIV infections attributed to drug injections since the program began in 1994, Keeton also says.  Moreover, the goal isn’t just to get addicts to exchange dirty needles for clean ones, or offer an  immediate HIV test in a mobile van. It’s to get them to stop using completely by giving them information and trying to get them into a treatment program.

Also,  according to Keeton, the AIDS Resource Center does not use any government money to purchase needles or other materials that are part of the Lifepoint program. Government money is only used for counseling, testing and referral services.

Even good, hard-nosed cops like a lieutenant in Milton I spoke to recently can see the effectiveness of the Lifepoint program. The other side, though,  is that it’s not just needles that are being handed out, and there is a question about whether Lifepoint is “legitimizing” drug usage, to borrow the lieutenant’s word.

The reason the cookers are distributed, according to Keeton, is that multiple users sometimes dip infected needles into the same one.  The pipe- holders are given out, he said, because smokers sometimes have cuts on their lips.

And the matches?

The matches, according to Keeton, have “contact information” on them.

I think, given all the evidence, as well as what happened in Milton, that privately-funded needle-exchange programs are an obviously good thing so long as the message  gets across that there is a way to get treatment or contact somebody who can help.

The ambivalence comes, though, from the fear that addicts – when you give them a matchbook that lights up both the thing they love and the thing that might one day kill them – aren’t looking for a way to avoid the next high. They’re looking for a way to get one. And it’s being handed to them.

You just hope that somehow, at some point, they really do get the message.

HIV can kill, after all, but so does heroin itself.