St. Johnsbury asks to decertify needle exchange

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(Host) The selectboard in Saint Johnsbury has asked the Health Department to decertify a controversial needle exchange program that recently started in the community.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Saint Johnsbury officials say they were taken by surprise when the needle exchange opened last month in space rented from the Northeastern Vermont Regional hospital located nearby. The program is operated by Vermont CARES.

Proponents of needle exchanges say the programs help slow the spread of AIDS and hepatitis by providing intravenous drug users with clean needles. Critics worry that a needle exchange encourages drug use and sends the wrong message to young people. The programs were authorized by the legislature in 1999.

State regulations require that organizations running needle exchanges get community input before a program is started. In voting unanimously to ask the Health Department to decertify the St. Johnsbury program, the selectboard said Vermont CARES hadn’t solicited input from a broad spectrum of the community.

Kendall Farrell is executive director of Vermont CARES. Farrell says Vermont CARES did it’s best to solicit community input about the program.

(Farrell) “I’m not claiming that Vermont CARES did everything perfectly. This is a new program, this is the first time that we’ve done this.”

(Zind) Farrell acknowledges that there could have been a greater effort to contact town officials.

Saint Johnsbury Town Manager Mike Welch says the selectboard’s vote doesn’t necessarily mean the community doesn’t want a needle exchange program.

(Welch) “I don’t think that they’ve specifically said that. What they have said is that they want an opportunity to have a broad based group of health care professionals and local citizens review not only this issue but also all community health issues.”

(Zind) Welch says the controversy surrounding the needle exchange program in St. Johnsbury has heightened awareness about drug abuse in the community. Kendall Farrell says she’s willing to meet with people in Saint Johnsbury to discuss the needle exchange, but Vermont CARES plans to continue to operate the program unless the Health Department decides to decertify it.

The Saint Johnsbury program is one of three needle exchanges in the state. Rod Copeland of the Vermont Health Department says programs in Burlington and Brattleboro have been in operation for over a year.

(Copeland) “We have been very pleased that those programs have gone off without a hitch and their has been no adverse public or community reaction to the programs.”

(Zind) Copeland says the Brattleboro program serves about twenty people a year. Twice as many use the Burlington needle exchange. Four people have used the program in Saint Johnsbury, since it was started last month.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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