The longer I live, the more aware I become that sometimes the best solution to a problem is seemingly counterintuitive.

How do you help a large ship stay upright and in position while floating? You fill one of its compartments with water. Called a ballast tank, this weighs down the boat enough to lower its center of gravity. When a boat unloads its cargo or if it passes through hazardous weather, crews take on more water to keep the boat appropriately weighed down in order to keep it properly afloat.

Seems more like witchcraft than science to me, but my all-knowing nautical friends assure me it’s true.

Counterintuitive solutions work at home, too. I tell my husband we don’t need to worry about painting the basement for quite a while, but the bag of recycling on the garage stairs needs to be taken out stat — and that’s how I get the basement painted two years ahead of schedule (all for the low price of taking the recycling out myself).

This week the Latah Recovery Center board of directors considered the implementation of a needle exchange program — giving recreational drug users clean needles in exchange for used ones — as part of a proposed harm-reduction program. As of my deadline, the results of the vote were unknown, but the Daily News reported over the weekend that not everyone at the center supported the proposal.

At face value the concerns make sense. If we want to stop people from using intravenous drugs, shouldn’t we cut off their supply to needles instead of handing them out for free? Isn’t a needle exchange condoning, even supporting, recreational drug use? Won’t free needles result in increased drug use?

As counterintuitive as it may seem, decades of research prove the opposite to be true. For one, needle exchange programs are a valuable tool in reducing HIV, hepatitis C, and other infectious diseases known to spread through used needles. These infections can then spread to others in the community. While hep C is primarily transmitted through blood and there is much better awareness of how to avoid spreading HIV than existed several decades ago, both still pose very real community health concerns in addition to being devastating to the infected individuals.

By providing means for safe disposal of used needles, these programs protect police officers, paramedics, and all other first responders from the very real and definitely scary occupational hazard of needlestick injuries and their accompanying disease exposure risks. They clean up communities as fewer needles are improperly disposed or littered.

Idaho came around to the notion of needle exchange programs in 2019 when it passed the Syringe and Needle Act (also known as Chapter 34, Title 37 of Idaho Code) with the stated purpose “to prevent the transmission of disease and to reduce morbidity and mortality among individuals who inject drugs.”

The CDC agrees. “Nearly 30 years of research has shown that comprehensive SSPs [Syringe Services Programs] are safe, effective, and cost-saving, do not increase illegal drug use or crime, and play an important role in reducing the transmission of viral hepatitis, HIV and other infections.”

These sites are so important, in fact, that in 2020 the CDC declared these programs “essential public health infrastructure” and advised all jurisdictions to keep them operational during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Latah Recovery Center Executive Director Darrell Keim points out these exchanges give the center the opportunity to inform drug users of local resources that are available. “It’s not just ‘here’s your needles.’ It’s ‘here’s how to get out of this lifestyle when you’re ready.’ ”

Again coming in strong with research, the CDC says that individuals who use syringe services programs are up to five times more likely to enter drug treatment than those who do not, and they are about three times more likely to reduce drug use or stop all together.

If the vote failed, Latah Recovery Center’s board should reconsider. If it passed, the community needs to rally behind this effort. These programs are important, they’re needed, and most of all they work — even if you don’t think they should.

Stellmon set sail for a three-hour tour on the Palouse in 2001. She is now happily marooned in Moscow with her spouse and five children.

Recommended for you