Livingston Parish will not have a needle exchange program any time soon after the parish council decided unanimously to indefinitely table a proposal that would have paved the way for the state to operate such an initiative in the area.
Needle exchange programs allow drug users to bring used syringes to a designated facility in exchange for a clean needle, with the intent to curb the spread of disease like HIV and hepatitis A and C.
Proponents say such programs give health agencies a chance to make contact with drug users in the hope of getting them into treatment or mental health care and to screen for diseases, but opponents worry the program would enable drug abuse and provide resources to those who are committing crimes by using drugs.
The latter opinion won out Thursday as a number of residents expressed their concerns, and council members echoed those opinions in a series of questions to the Louisiana Department of Health officials present.
If the proposal had been approved, Livingston Parish itself would not be involved in the program, which would instead be run by the Department of Health through federal grants and private partnerships.
The proposal — to adopt an ordinance that would decriminalize the distribution and possession of hypodermic needles — had been unanimously introduced at the council’s Nov. 21 meeting.
Councilman Jeff Averett said he personally funds diabetic supplies for himself, including needles, and doesn’t receive federal funds to help offset that cost so he doesn’t see why drug users should get those resources for free. Several others in the audience nodded and muttered their agreement as he spoke.
Resident Deidre Cellars was emotional as she spoke to the council, telling them her mom and a close friend have both died in the last four years as the result of the opioid crisis.
Livingston Parish, which leads the state in hepatitis A infections, is eyeing a needle exchange program that would allow the free distribution…
“I’m begging you as someone who’s seen the result up close and personal, that you do not do this to the people of Livingston Parish,” she said, her voice breaking at times. “I do not believe the results will be anything good for this parish.”
Office of Public Health regional director Gina LaGarde, who oversees the district that includes Livingston, attempted to allay concerns with data but didn’t have any numbers from surrounding parishes about how needle exchange programs have specifically helped drug users, which is what numerous council members were asking about.
“This is real, it’s here in the community,” she said. “This syringe services program does not encourage the use of drugs at all, the data does not show that.”
LaGarde said Livingston Parish leads the state in hepatitis A cases by number, not per capita, meaning Livingston Parish has more hepatitis A cases than more-populous areas like East Baton Rouge Parish.
LaGarde said there are needle exchange programs in Orleans, East Baton Rouge, Caddo and Rapides parishes. Officials said Louisiana only legalized such programs in 2017 so there isn’t much long-term data about how it works in Louisiana, though some underground, or illegal, programs did exist prior to that time.
Councilman Garry “Frog” Talbert, who was not present when the ordinance was introduced in late November, moved to table the item until there is more data available. The council did not specify a date to bring the ordinance back for discussion, which means if it were to come back before the council it would need to be re-introduced.