Community needle exchange and clean-needle programs have the support of New Orleans officials to help combat hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS transmissions as part of the city’s ramped-up efforts against opioid overdoses.
The New Orleans City Council approved a measure Dec. 14 that updates the city’s rules governing drug paraphernalia, which previously banned syringes and needles for nonmedical purposes. But Louisiana lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards recently retooled drug paraphernalia rules statewide by allowing syringes for "for bona fide medical" use and giving local governments the ability to establish clean needle programs.
That rule effectively brings a formerly “underground” nonprofit network servicing hundreds of people in the metro area into a legal framework, potentially institutionalizing a service that has operated in a legally gray area while saving thousands of lives.
“We should not condemn people who have infectious disease because they have the disease of addiction,” said New Orleans Health Department Director Joseph Kanter.
Though the ordinance primarily is designed to protect needle programs and people using them, it also allows people with a prescription for medical marijuana to possess drug paraphernalia for that purpose - a measure that lines up with the state's in-progress plans for a medical marijuana program.
The Health Department also plans to setup needle drop-off boxes in targeted areas around the city, with the coordination of neighborhood groups and Parks and Parkways. “While we’re working to help people through addiction, we don’t want them sharing needles, and we certainly don’t want them on the ground,” Kanter said.
Kanter says hepatitis C infections have tripled since 2010, “driven almost entirely by sharing injection equipment, needles.” According to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, the total number of hepatitis C-related hospitalizations from 1999 to 2014 ranged from 467,000 to 608,000 and are "increasing by 2,400 each year."
Alison Vertovec, Community Projects Manager with Crescent Care (formerly NO/AIDS Task Force), said roughly 1,600 people will have participated in its syringe access program by the end of 2017.
The volunteer-run Trystero/New Orleans Harm Reduction Network serves roughly 500 people a month and offers 1,000 kits with the overdose-reversal drug naloxone each year. The organization’s Nora Maria Fuller says those kits successfully reversed at least 220 overdoses in 2016 and 279 in 2017.
New Orleans Police Department also now carries naloxone, and New Orleans Public Library staff also has been trained to administer the drug following overdoses in libraries around the U.S. Kanter says there haven't been any overdoses reported in New Orleans libraries.
The New Orleans Health Department and NOPD also offer a prescription drop-off box at 1116 Magnolia St., where people can discriminately drop unused prescription drugs in an effort to curb abuse. Kanter says the city plans to add those boxes at NOPD’s eight police district stations. Kanter and District B Councilwoman and Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell say they also hope to see needle dropoffs at those stations.
Drug-related deaths eclipsed the number of murders in New Orleans in 2016. More than 200 people died from drug-related causes in 2016, more than double the number of similar deaths from 2015. Of last year’s drug-related deaths, 166 involved opiates, and 48 people died with the synthetic opioid fentanyl in their system.
In 2015, there were 13 fentanyl-related deaths, among 93 drug-related deaths that year.