TULSA, Okla. — IV drug users in Oklahoma could legally exchange needles if two bipartisan bills become law. House Bill 3028 and Senate Bill 1346 propose legalizing needle exchanges.
The first known needle exchange program was in Amsterdam in 1983. It was implemented to reduce the cases of HIV transferred through used needles.
In 1988, the concept was picked up in the U.S. Currently, 39 states have needle exchange programs, also known as syringe exchange programs, to help reduce the spread of diseases.
According to national health data, Oklahoma is the worst state for the Hepatitis C cases. In 2018, 4,609 cases were diagnosed,
Of those cases, over 3,000 were inmates in the custody of the Oklahoma Department of Correction. The average cost to treat one inmate with Hepatitis is $29,000. That's a total cost of over $100 million.
Carmen WhiteEagle who supports needle exchange programs says it's a way to safely control what many people struggle with.
"People are going to use drugs. It’s been happening since the beginning of time, but we want to absolutely provide them with a safe way to use drugs," WhiteEagle said.
WhiteEagle says she lost close friends as a result of IV drug use. She works with a non profit group in Tulsa which delivers clean needles to IV drug users.
There could be legal and criminal repercussions for delivering needles without a needle exchange law. WhiteEagle says she is not concerned about what could happen to her as long as she's helping people.
"For the safety of citizens and the people around me, including when your kids are walking through the park and might intercept a dirty needle," WhiteEagle said.
Some feel needle exchange programs are not the best option for addicts because they allow for continued drug use.
A recovering addict who doesn't want to be identified says drugs devastated her life.
“It destroyed it completely. Everything it touched. Everything I touched," she said.
She says it wasn't until she was fed up with constant incarceration that she turned to recovery.
“I used every day for 33 years. I was an addict on the needle for 10. I 100 percent believe in recovery. Look what it’s done for me. If it can do it for me, it can do it for anyone. But you gotta want it.”
In other states where needle exchange programs are legal, rehabilitation counselors are on hand to aid in the process.
If House Bill 3028 and Senate Bill 1346 become law, programs will not be paid for by state funds and any group operating a needle exchange must periodically report detailed statistics to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
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