St. Johnsbury residents discuss needle exchange program

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(Host) Since it began operating three weeks ago, a needle exchange program in St. Johnsbury has been the subject of heated debate in the community. A community forum was held Tuesday night to exchange information and air concerns about the program.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) The public forum was called because many people said they were taken by surprise when the needle exchange program opened in St. Johnsbury. They called for more community input.

Some expressed disappointment that only 50 people turned out to listen to a panel of eighteen community leaders, school administrators, and health and social services officials. Among panelists there was disagreement about the effectiveness of a needle exchange program. But all agreed St. Johnsbury has a heroin problem.

(Panelist) “I’ve spent the last 25 years working in the substance abuse field. We have younger and younger people using heroin. I see young moms, pregnant women who are addicted to heroin. I see people starting the use of heroin at the age of thirteen and fourteen years old. It’s a frightening, frightening thing for me.”

(Zind) The needle exchange program is operated by Vermont Cares. The organization cited statistics showing Caledonia County has the highest per capita heroin use in the state.

Vermont Cares representatives stressed that the program is, first and foremost, a public health effort aimed at reducing the spread of AIDS and hepatitis caused by using dirty needles. They also pointed to studies showing that needle exchange programs don’t increase drug use. They said a significant percentage of people who use the programs eventually enter drug treatment.

Some questioned the findings and expressed concerns that the program will encourage drug use in St. Johnsbury and contribute to a negative image of the city. Panelists and audience members traded views for over two and a half hours.

“People are moving out of the community. Because of the needle exchange program? No, not totally. There are a whole bunch of reasons. I look at the needle exchange program; I’m sure six months from now a methadone clinic will be proposed.”

“Right now you can get free needles at the needle exchange and I highly doubt that any of you are going to start using heroin just because you can get free needles now.”

“This philosophy is the same one that would have us put condoms in the bathrooms at our school because some believe that teenagers can’t abstain from sex.”

“I think it’s far better for St. Johnsbury to be known as a place with a heroin problem, but known as a place which is trying intelligently and courageously to deal with that problem; than to be known as a place with a heroin problem which is sticking their head in the sand and trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.”

“I have two children – one is five [years old] and one is three, and I’m really scared about them growing up in a town that has this type of behavior going on: the needle exchange program and the heroin problem. And I know we have a heroin problem. I know that.”

“I’m a mother of a recovering heroin addict. She’s a wonderful person. She’s got a future. And had she used a dirty needle, she wouldn’t be looking at a future right now.”

(Zind) Vermont Cares representatives said they know needle exchange programs are controversial. They said they have no plans to discontinue the program in St Johnsbury. Currently there are programs in Brattleboro and Burlington.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in St. Johnsbury.

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