Chico Lewis and Roger Lowe know more IV-drug users than anybody in Northeast Ohio. That’s no exaggeration, just the reality of their unique work, reports the Cleveland Plain Dealer. They hand out tens of thousands of new hypodermic needles each month to hundreds of addicts. College students and strippers. Laborers and office workers. The unemployed and homeless. Lewis and Lowe know many of them by name or by their sad backstories. They work for the Free Medical Clinic of Greater Cleveland, which has been operating Ohio’s first needle-exchange program since 1995. The program allows addicts to trade used needles for new ones. Cutting down on addicts’ need to share dirty needles reduces the potential spread of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV.
The program is experiencing an insatiable demand for its needles and related health services as a result of the heroin epidemic. The Free Clinic distributed 358,560 needles during the most recent one-year funding cycle, an increase of 43 percent over the previous cycle. The number of individual addicts trading needles in the program jumped from 1,332 to 3,192 during the same period, a 143 percent increase. The Free Clinic is on pace to distribute more needles during its current cycle than in any of the previous 20. Lewis and Lowe typically start their mornings before 9 a.m., stocking a large white cargo van with boxes of syringes and other medical supplies. They then spend the day at two distribution sites, five days a week. The newspaper describes the process in detail.