Until the opioid epidemic began seeping into nearly every city and town, the idea of a Main Street storefront offering free needles, alcohol wipes and small metal cookers for heroin users was unthinkable in a conservative Southern city like Wilmington, N.C., Stateline reports. These days, most of the city’s 100,000 residents are painfully aware that their community has a serious drug problem. Syringes carpet sections of public walkways, drug users congregate in vacant lots, and there are more opioid overdose deaths. As a result, many police officers support syringe exchanges, places where drug users can go to dispose of used needles, pick up fresh ones, get health exams, and maybe find out about treatment options. They are willing to overlook the fact that possessing drug paraphernalia, including syringes, is an arrestable offense.
In North Carolina, where the sheriffs’ association helped a grassroots harm reduction organization enact the nation’s most liberal syringe exchange law in 2016, many cops still insist that giving free supplies to heroin users simply enables their drug use. “Police officers are just like the rest of the public,” said Capt. Lars Paul of the Fayetteville Police Department. “Until I got educated on harm reduction, I questioned why we were giving drug users all kinds of free supplies too. It was just a matter of taking the time to talk to folks and learn about the public health benefits of syringe exchanges.” Last year, a poll in Ohio found that half of adults in that state favor syringe exchange programs. Politicians are listening. At least a dozen states legalized syringe exchanges in 2016 and 2017, said Daniel Raymond of the Harm Reduction Coalition, which advocates for syringe exchanges. Nearly all the new laws were signed by Republican governors and approved by GOP-led legislatures, including in Ohio.