With reports by the Center for Disease Control showing the number of heroin-related overdose deaths quadrupling between 2002 and 2013, drug treatment centers are looking to alternative methods that get around a recent congressional ban on federally funded syringe exchange programs. One such example is a new joint effort by the Southern Nevada Health District, the Nevada AIDS Research and Education Society, and Trac-B Exchange, which uses vending machines to distribute clean needles.
Instead of cash, credit, or debit cards, the vending machines use a combination of an ID card and a PIN number. In return, the machine vends a nondescript kit containing alcohol wipes, syringes, safe sex supplies, and a disposal box. While Nevada is the first state in the U.S. to introduce a syringe vending machine, similar programs have been launched in Europe and Australia.
“This is a harm reduction approach,” said Trac-B Exchange Program Manager Chelsi Cheatom, while speaking with Las Vegas NBC affiliate SLV3. “By providing them with clean syringes as well as other clean instruments they can use, they are reducing the risk of sharing any items and they are also reducing the risk of reusing.”
The harm reduction approach has been debated, given how similar epidemics in low-income black and Latino communities were treated in past decades.
“When the perception of the user population is primarily people of color, then the response is to demonize and punish,” noted Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, in a 2015 article published in The Atlantic. “When it's white, then we search for answers. Think of the difference between marijuana attitudes in the ‘reefer madness’ days of the 1930s when the drug was perceived to be used in the ‘racy’ parts of town, and then the 1960s (white) college town explosion in use.”
As for the syringe vending machines, they will be located at Trac-B Exchange, Aid for AIDS Nevada (AFAN) and the Community Counseling Center. Program organizers say drug users aren’t required to stop using drugs or enroll in one of the recovery programs in order to use the machines.