Battle over clean needles in Newport - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Battle over clean needles in Newport

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"It's a no-brainer," Newport City Police Chief Seth DiSanto said.

DiSanto says the city is dealing with a heroin epidemic and needs a syringe exchange program.

"If we can keep one child or one innocent citizen from pricking themselves with a needle that's contaminated with any unknown number of medical concerns, I think that's well worthwhile," DiSanto said.

In the last five months, he says Newport police have picked up close to three-dozen dirty needles discarded on city streets. And he wants to do more to protect the public.

"People are nervous about drug use. It's a hard conversation to have," Peter Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen runs Vermont CARES, the state's largest HIV-AIDS service organization. The group connects addicts with services and provides free, clean needles in exchange for dirty ones. Staff members collect close to 200,000 used needles per year.

"We've seen more people testing positive for HIV related to injection drug use, more people testing positive for hepatitis C through injection drug use and more people dying from heroin-related overdoses," Jacobsen said.

In response, the organization is working to get a syringe exchange program into every Vermont county. But the pitch to Newport didn't go so well.

"I was on the fence when it first began," Newport Mayor Paul Monette said.

Monette broke the City Council's split vote. He says Newport already hosts a methadone clinic and wants to keep the needle program out. He's worried about a lack of counseling, criminals accessing the needles and enticing drug dealers.

"I could be a drug dealer. I could go get clean needles and peddle my drugs somewhere on the street and say, 'Oh have some clean needles to go with it.' And that bothered me," Monette said.

It's a viewpoint that's putting him and other city officials at odds with law enforcement.

"Those syringes cost nothing. It's the poison that they put in the syringes that runs and drives the market. Therefore, no heroin dealer is going to say, 'Today I have on sale X bags of heroin and oh, by the way, here's a complete kit to do it with,'" DiSanto said.

The chief denies a needle exchange would lead to more drug use; the goal is to keep addicts from contracting and spreading diseases.

"I do not condone the use of heroin," DiSanto said. "What I do condone is a safer society. And I saw no downside to the needle exchange program."

Vermont CARES does not need City Council approval to run its needle exchange, but says it's always better when they have community support.

"We're still going to offer mobile exchange to people in Newport if they ask for it," Jacobsen said. "We think we can do this in most towns across Vermont with very little impact on the community. People generally don't even know these exchanges are happening."

Another facet of the growing opiate problem across the state.

Vermont CARES is now focusing its efforts in the state's Northwest corner and is in talks with St. Albans to put a mobile needle exchange in that city. Advocates say each exchange costs about $1,000 a year to run.

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