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Needle Exchange Programs In Ohio Double Over Last Three Years

Needle exchange programs — also called "syringe services" programs — allow drug users to swap dirty needles for clean ones, but also can offer HIV screening, fentanyl test strips, and referrals to addiction treatment and other social services.

In 2015, the state made it easier for these programs to operate in Ohio. The Center for Community Solutions, a nonpartisan public policy think tank, has been tracking the rise of syringe exchanges. It recently came out with a new report showing the number of exchanges nearly doubled over the last three years. We spoke with the center's health planning lead, Melissa Federman. 

What Happened at the State Level in 2015?

In 2015 the state statute changed and essentially sanctioned these programs in Ohio, said Federman. "Prior to that, a juridiction had to declare a public health emergency in order to operate one of the programs," said Federman. Before the change in state law, Cleveland and Portsmouth had both declared public health emergencies to institute needle exchange programs. 

The 2015 changes also provided a "buffer zone for clients to protect them from Ohio's drug paraphernalia laws," said Federman. 

Number of Programs in Operation 

Federman says there are currently 16 established syringe services in Ohio, with three more in development. This is up from six programs in 2016. 

Rural areas, which have also been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, are being served to some extent by exchange programs but there are gaps, said Federman. Northwest Ohio, for instance, is poorly served apart from a program in Lucas County, according to the Center for Community Solutions. 

Benefits and Drawbacks of Exchange Programs 

"The benefits are clear," said Federman, citing data that shows exchange programs prevent transmission of infectious diseases like HIV, hepatitis C, and syphilis. Clients in exchange programs are also five times more likely to connect to recovery services, says Federman. 

In terms of drawbacks, Federman says the programs are sometimes misunderstood, and that research shows there is not increased crime associated with exchange programs. The programs are developed in cooperation with local police, she said. 

What Next?

"We are going to be keeping an eye on the parts of the state that do not yet have programs, that are at risk for HIV. And we'll also be keeping an eye on funding for these programs," said Federman. The funding for needle exchange programs has not been consistent or sustained, she said. "Often the communities support these programs with whatever they have locally," said Federman. This funding instability can make programs hesitant to start offering additional services, like fentanyl test strips, she said. 


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