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Needle-exchange debate swirls

MONTESANO — As the county commissioners debate the future of Grays Harbor County’s needle-exchange program, public comment has been steady. So far, about 20 residents have chimed in, with clear support from those who testified during public comment on Monday and a more mixed reaction from a dozen or so emails the commissioners have received.

County Commissioner Wes Cormier said Monday he’s still not convinced that spending county money on a program exchanging dirty needles from drug addicts and diabetics should be a county priority. It’s a position he’s had since he was a candidate running for public office more than a year ago.

County Commissioner Frank Gordon is in support of it, saying he’s worried defunding the $117,400 program, could end up with more dirty needles in playgrounds and bushes. Commissioner Herb Welch has voted for the program before, but remains on the fence. The program needs two of the three commissioners to support it. The county started funding the program in 2011 after the state eliminated funds for it.

Last week, Public Health Director Joan Brewster had requested approval of the county funds, but Cormier put a hold on it because he didn’t feel comfortable and his fellow commissioners agreed to delay a vote to get more public input. Brewster met with Cormier privately on Monday to talk about the program and the other ways the county uses a dedicated sales tax revenue for mental health and substance abuse programs.

More than 450,000 needles are typically exchanged from more than 2,000 people a year in Grays Harbor County, according to Grays Harbor Public Health numbers from 2011. Besides keeping contaminated needles out of the environment, Brewster notes the program also provides access for referral for addiction treatment.

“Would you agree that heart disease is the No. 1 killer in America?” Cormier mused Monday afternoon. “The answer is ‘yes.’ And what is the biggest cause of heart disease? Cheese. So, scientifically, the experts would say ban cheese, but philosophically, it’s not a role of government. You let people eat what they want and, philosophically, I’m against the needle exchange because they can bring up the scientific reasons why it’s good, but philosophically you have to consider that reason, too. You can’t just say it’s good for society. The end doesn’t justify the means.”

Cormier says he’s never hidden his point of view, even as a candidate running for public office.

“I’m consistent,” Cormier said. “I’ve not changed my mind.”

PUBLIC COMMENT

“I hope that you really study this carefully before you just cut it off,” Robin Moore of Hoquiam told the county commissioners Monday afternoon. “I know that it’s not just needles and it’s not just drug addicts. It’s a way that people get connected and stay connected and I think we need to have compassion and I know you guys can do that.”

Former PUD commissioner Jim Eddy of Hoquiam said there could be problems if the needle-exchange program was eliminated.

“I think it is wise once in a while to pull back blanket authorizations for a whole bunch of stuff and look at them individually,” Eddy said, looking at Cormier. “So, I applaud you for that. When you get to the needle-exchange program, the efficacy of the needle-exchange program is undeniable. I know you have concerns, morally…”

“Philosophically,” Cormier corrected.

“I can respect you have those differences but I think you espouse being a fiscal conservative and the needle-exchange program saves money and saves lives,” Eddy added. “… Even if you disagree with giving the needles, nobody says, ‘Gee, I wish I could try heroin, but I don’t have any needles. Oh wow. Now that there’s a needle-exchange program, I think I’ll try it.’ It’s never happened and never will happen.”

Dr. Ki Shin of Montesano said he’s been in the community for 16 years, is a professor of medicine at the University of Washington and is the doctor for the county jail. Shin says he sees the infected abscesses at the county jail and sees what happens when drug addicts use dirty needles and the aftermath of infections. In fact, he notes that the county has to pay the medical bills for the prisoners while they’re in jail because of state law. The hope is that the needle-exchange program is reducing the number of infections.

“You tell me, philosophically, we shouldn’t treat them, but we have obligations to treat them and when they come in with dirty abscesses, it will cost the county a lot more money,” Shin said.

Shin said there were “too many downstream consequences.”

John Fara, an attorney from Ocean Shores, agreed that the needle-exchange program should continue.

“Compared to some of the other issues brought forward by the public, I think these are dollars well spent,” Fara said.

Comments emailed to the county commissioners were more mixed.

“I do not believe that giving needles to drug addicts is beneficial,” countered Allan Shores of Aberdeen in an email to the commissioners. “By doing this, you just keep enabling them to use drugs. … Addicts have to hit the gutter before and maybe wallow there for a time before they are willing to change and get help.”

A worker of a construction business in Aberdeen said she was located near the needle-exchange area, which takes place at the Chehalis River Bridge. “I have had serious concerns regarding this program for some time,” she wrote to the commissioners. “One point I find very disturbing is that it is basically funding an illegal act. I do not understand that concept any more than handing a gun to a felon and saying, ‘Now put a bullet in there and go on your way.’”

She said that needles are often found in the park next to the bridge and provided pictures of needles she’s found to the commissioners.

“Why is it not in the parking lot of the county health departments where it can be monitored closer and be totally transparent?” she asked. “Some weeks it looks more like a social event, with cars pulling up and people just hanging out in groups loitering about.”

Carol Coyle of Aberdeen says she doesn’t think the needle-exchange program is helping because she’s found needles in parks all over Aberdeen and even in planter boxes in front of Aberdeen businesses.

“There is a steady stream of homeless people and probably not homeless people that frequent the property under the Chehalis Bridge, West side,” she wrote of the Aberdeen bridge. “Many needles are found along South G Street. This problem has gotten worse since the needle exchange program started. … Use the money for drug treatment, detoxification services, youth programs — especially youth programs — psychiatry support and medication assisted treatment. Take one item at a time, look it over, see how it will affect the entire community. Don’t use money, sales tax to fund a needle exchange program for drug users.”

Dr. Tom Greisamer of Moclips wrote to the commissioners that he was proud of the commissioners for funding the program back in 2011 after the state pulled its funding.

“I share the concern of at least one of the commissioners in regard to providing needles for drug users,” he added. “It almost has the feel of condoning drug use, which of course it does not. I believe that there are multiple benefits from the program that outweigh any drawbacks the needle exchange program might have. However, I am concerned about the cost and wonder if the needles could not be distributed/exchanged in a more efficient manner to lower the cost to less than $100,000 a year.”

Vern Adderley of Aberdeen told the commissioners they needed to keep the needle-exchange program and invest in more treatment programs.

And her thoughts were echoed by others who provided emailed comments, as well.

“I would like to ask Commissioner Cormier to consider his reasoning for eliminating this service,” said Carol Boyer of Montesano. “While I can’t read his mind, my guess is that he feels addicts don’t ‘deserve’ services paid for by tax-paying citizens. Whether or not addicts “deserve” services paid for by law-abiding, tax-paying folk is not the issue. Eliminating this service would be penny-wise and pound-foolish—a net loss for our citizens — all of them.”

Public comment continues to be accepted. Those, who wish to comment can do so at the public comment period during their regular meeting, 2 p.m., Monday, Sept. 30 or by emailing Commish@co.grays-harbor.wa.us or calling the commissioners at 1-800-230-1638.