In 2018, 43.9 million people made the decision to come to Arizona and visit. It is a safe bet that of those 43.9 million, the vast majority would cite the sheer beauty of Arizona as one of their main reasons for coming here. Not only is the rural landscape immensely appealing, but the action and diversity of our streets–in the cities, in small towns, on our college campuses, and most importantly, our neighborhoods–make Arizona a place to take great pride in.

But in order to preserve our state’s beauty and appeal, we need to keep it clean. And one way to improve cleanliness all over this lovely desert is to institute and legalize Syringe Service Programs (SSPs).

SSPs are often referred to as “Needle Exchange Programs.” They are outreach programs that distribute health and safety supplies such as unused syringes, alcohol swabs and Naloxone (Narcan), as well as offer guidance and referrals to other organizations that may provide further assistance and advice to people currently using drugs. Moreover, SSPs provide safe spaces for people to safely dispose of their used syringes and needles, thereby removing them from public areas in our communities.

SSPs are staffed by professionals trained not only in lifesaving measures such as the administration of Naloxone, but also in how to talk in a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental manner to clients about addiction, recovery, and other life challenges that may stand in the way of self-improvement.

Research has shown that in areas where SSPs are active, referrals to treatment options for people who use drugs have increased dramatically, and new infections of bloodborne diseases such as HIV have plummeted. Far from being an encouragement of drug use, SSPs have proven in other states to be the single most effective weapon against the devastating effects of opioid use–not least of all syringe litter, which is not only unsightly but also dangerous to the general public.

One of the most common concerns faced by people confronted with the possibility of introducing an SSP into their community, is the increase of needles in circulation; after all, it seems logical to assume that giving out syringes will increase the number of discarded, used syringes in public areas, thereby increasing risks of bloodborne infection for ordinary citizens.

However, Syringe Service Programs have had the opposite effect. In multiple communities where SSPs have been introduced, the number of used syringes that are improperly discarded actually goes down. This decrease is largely due to the SSPs offering, in addition to syringes, safe spaces for people using drugs to dispose of them. Moreover, if Syringe Service Programs allow legal transport of syringes, people who use drugs are more likely to hold onto a used needle until a safe disposal site can be found.

It is true that one effect of the opioid epidemic has been a noticeable increase in publicly discarded syringes; finding these items in highly-trafficked areas is naturally of great concern to average citizens, who rightfully worry about the accidental spread of bloodborne diseases that can be transmitted through used syringes. At first it seems that the obvious answer to these disposal risks is to decrease the number of syringes (used or unused) in the community by any means necessary.

However, closer scrutiny reveals that although Syringe Service Programs cannot claim to rid an area of used syringes entirely, the implementation of SSPs does in fact decrease the number of improperly discarded syringes, offering clients a safe place to dispose of used syringes and thereby keep the streets safer. In short, Syringe Service Programs are one of the few tools proven effective against the destructive community effects of intravenous opioid use.

In our Arizona legislature, a bill has come up for consideration that would legalize SSPs in our state. We owe it to ourselves to support the legalization of such programs, as they have produced empirical evidence of their useful impact. We Arizonans should take full advantage of the improvement opportunities that SSPs offer; we owe it to our neighbors and our visitors; to our tourists and our residents; to our parks and our streets; to the beautiful desert we proudly call home.

Maggie Maurer
SPW Policy Intern