Syringe Service Programs (SSPs) are comprehensive health resource points for people experiencing addiction. SSPs are an evidence based strategy for communicable disease and overdose prevention through providing sterile syringes, safer use supplies, syringe disposal, HIV and Hepatitis C testing, and referrals to treatment.

Unfortunately still many people believe that giving people who use drugs (PWUD) a non-judgmental place to care for their health brands drug use as acceptable and therefore must increase drug use overall. This is despite decades of studies that have shown SSPs actually curtail the use of drugs and increase the number of PWUD seeking and entering treatment. Moreover, SSPs save taxpayers thousands of dollars in healthcare costs brought about by drug use; an analysis published in 2014 showed that every dollar spent on clean syringes for SSPs saved at least six dollars in medical costs for the treatment of H.I.V. alone. Most notably, SSPs greatly reduce the risks faced by those fighting the opioid crisis in the trenches every day: law enforcement and first-responders.

Most people know that used needles are a major cause of blood-borne, infectious diseases such as H.I.V., Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. However, such danger impacts those trying to enforce the law as much as those who are using drugs. Statistics collected in multiple studies across multiple states show that on average, approximately one in three police officers has suffered at least one accidental needle stick, caused by I.V. drug users carrying dirty syringes.

For every accidental needle-stick, the cost to law-enforcement agencies is great, for in such cases officers who have potentially been exposed to Hepatitis C, Hepatitis B and H.I.V. must necessarily seek medical attention, including multiple tests for each illness that must continue for at least six months. Additionally, medication treatment must be used, including antiretroviral drugs to combat potential H.I.V. infection, and vaccination to work against potential Hepatitis B infection.

It goes without saying that other great costs of law enforcement’s accidental needle-sticks are psychological and interpersonal. No one should have to bear the emotional weight that comes with the possibility of infection, nor should people have to carry the stress involved with preventative treatment for the period of time it takes to take such measures. Every needle-stick suffered by law enforcement erodes feelings of professional security and adds to an atmosphere of uncertainty in exchanges involving intravenous drug-users, those which pose the risks of accidental needle-sticks.

In 2015, Vice-President Mike Pence (then Governor of Indiana) was presented with the opportunity to bring SSPs into law, after the effects of the opioid epidemic had wreaked havoc on counties in his home state. Though at first he had grave reservations about such programs, he soon connected with law enforcement officers. They assured him that, though the idea of legalizing SSPs may seem on the surface to be counterintuitive and, frankly, radical, they were actually the best way to help their fellow officers prevent risks to their health and safety. As Sheriff Dan McClain of Scott County, Indiana said, “Before this, I never would have considered needle exchange. But once this outbreak happened, it became clear that it was one of the main ways to stop the spread.”

Vice-President Pence changed his attitude after speaking with law enforcement all over the state. At the ceremony announcing the order to allow a needle exchange program in Scott County, Vice-President Pence stated, “I will tell you, I do not support needle exchange as antidrug policy, but this is a public health emergency.”

No one who has devoted his or her professional life to helping those in need of protection and to making communities safer should be presented with the costs, stressors and dangers presented by the very crisis that they are working hard to eradicate. SSPs are the most effective way yet found to reduce these risks and therefore provide support to the law-enforcement community. We Arizonans owe it to our law-enforcement guardians to take whatever measures we can to help them do their jobs more effectively and most importantly, more safely.

Maggie Maurer, SPW Policy Intern