North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) Organizes North Carolina Advocates to Participate in the National Day of Action on Syringe Exchange

By Rob Banaszak on March 26, 2012 in Southern Initiatives

By Robert Childs, Executive Director
North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition

On Wednesday, March 21st, 2012, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) organized local clergy, law enforcement, diabetics, people of transgender experience, lawyers and drug users from around North Carolina to particpate in the National Day of Action on Syringe Exchange. Congress recently reinstated the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs (SEPs).  SEPs provide sterile syringes and collect used syringes to reduce transmission of viral hepatitis, HIV, and other bloodborne infections associated with reuse of contaminated injection equipment by drug users and diabetics.  Most SEPs are part of a comprehensive health promotion effort that includes HIV & hepatitis testing, education on reducing sexual and drug use-related health risks, and referrals to drug treatment & other medical and social services. Republicans in the House were successful in reversing policy on syringe exchange through FY 2012 Appropriations in December 2011. They re-imposed a complete ban on the use of federal funding for SEPs despite overwhelming scientific evidence showing decreased HIV, viral hepatitis and drug abuse among SEP participants, not only improving public health but also saving tax payers millions of dollars.

On March 21st NCHRC organized three actions: a mass letter writing campaign, a phone bank and a meeting with Senator Hagan’s office in Raleigh, NC.  We asked Senator Hagan to be our champion on this public health issue and to commit to the following actions:

  1. Ensure negotiations restore Congress’ FY 2010 syringe exchange language for both the federal and Washington, DC jurisdictions in FY 2012 appropriations legislation.
  2. Include language from FY 2010 on syringe exchange in the programmatic appropriations request letters due March 29th.
  3. Release a statement in support of restoring federal funding for syringe access programs.
  4. Encourage the North Carolina legislature and governor to decriminalize syringes and/or legalize syringe exchange.

Sen. Hagan’s office personnel gave us an indication of support, but promised to run the issue by Senator Hagan for a definitive answer on her position. At our meeting in Raleigh with Hagan’s office, we brought together advocates from various backgrounds to discuss the issue during our 30 minute meeting. As Executive Director, I covered an overview of SEPs and the history of federal funding while Ronald Martin (one of NCHRC’s law enforcement consultants with over 20 years of law enforcement experience) explained why law enforcement benefit from SEPs.  He stated, “Why would we not want syringe exchange? Research has shown a 66% reduction in law enforcement needlesticks in communities where SEPs exist. One out of three law enforcement can expect a needlestick in their career and I support any measure to reduce harm against our officers.” Reverends Jenna and Andy outline the moral imperative for life-saving SEPs, and our diabetic and transgender allies discussed the need for syringe access among these populations. To round out the meeting, Lucas Vrbsky from the NC Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers discussed the social justice benefits of federal funding for SEPs, Lisa Hazirjian from the NC AIDS Action Network demonstrated the financial benefits of SEPs as well as HIV prevalence among injection drug users, Faina Shalts (from Harvard’s SHARP crew) explained SEPs’ public health benefits and Tessie Castillo (NCHRC’s Harm Reduction Coordinator) completed the ask.

We would like to thank our allies and NC coalition members from Wilmington to Franklin who made this day a success and allowed us to put a southern stamp of support on this national issue.  Even though NC does not have legal syringe exchange, we support federal funding for syringe exchange because if the federal government shows support by allocating federal dollars for SEPs, it assists us in making the case for southern states to adopt these measures as well.   NCHRC hopes to see the US Senate, especially our representative Kay Hagan, champion this issue and send the message that our state supports an initiative that would improve NC and the nation’s public health and safety.

North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is a grantee of AIDS United’s Southern REACH initiative

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