WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - As a former Police Chief in High Point and Vice Officer in Greensboro, John Faircloth saw the dangers of drug use on the streets in North Carolina first hand.
Now, a third-term state representative from Guilford County, Faircloth has proposed a pilot program to help clean those streets of the used needles, lowering the risk that drug users leave behind.
House Bill 712 passed both the state House and Senate unanimously, and was signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory on October 22.
The bill proposes a pilot program to collect used syringes drug users discard haphazardly in streets, parks and other areas of their community.
The State Bureau of Investigation and the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) will spearhead the effort, which will launch December 1 in two areas, the City of Fayetteville and Haywood County. NCHRC has already built relationships with law enforcement and communities in those areas to deal with the growing problem of heroin use.
According to Special Agent-in-Charge Agent Donnie Varnell, workers and volunteers from the NCHRC will be "on the ground," going into areas where drug users are known to congregate and dispose of dirty needles. The workers will collect the disposed syringes and remove them.
The program will also put disposal boxes in some "high-use" areas, where users or others can discard used syringes safely.
The final part of the program will involve experts going into areas where the users are known to frequent, and ask them individually if they have any used syringes they want to throw away. Anyone who surrenders a syringe for safe and proper disposal cannot be charged for that syringe by law enforcement.
"Most injection drug users want to use a new syringe for every injection," said Robert Childs of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. "The big problem is syringe access in North Carolina is incredibly difficult which leads to people reusing syringes."
According to the American Foundation for AIDS Research, needle sharing during injection drug use is the primary driver of Hepatitis C infections in the United States. It is also a driving force in HIV/AIDS epidemic in this country.
Supporters say programs that increase the disposal rates of used syringes also help lower healthcare costs, since many people who inject drugs do not have insurance and are treated under Medicare.
According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, the state spent more than $71 million treating HIV and Hepatitis C cases in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
Others point to the anticipated positive impact of the program on public health.
"There will be a vast number of syringes, used syringes no longer lying on the ground in the open, because we'll get those off the ground," Varnell explained. "That means fewer children, and even fewer pets, coming home with a needle stuck in their foot."
From a law enforcement perspective, Varnell says the syringe disposal program will benefit police officers, sheriff's deputies and other first responders who often deal with the victims of drug use.
"Every location that has done this and has any kind of follow-up study has shown that it is a success," he said. "It lowers the number of accidental sticks to first responders. That means fewer police, EMS and fire personnel, doctors and nurses are accidentally stuck by a dirty needle. I assure you there are very few things more frightening than looking down and seeing that drop of blood on the tip of your finger. I've been there when that's happened."
Both Varnell and Childs look at the possible face-to-face interaction with drug users as an opportunity to provide lifesaving information on treatment programs.
"If while you're picking up a needle you can speak to someone and give them some resources they didn't know existed, or if it means you can hand out a Naloxone kit to someone who is at risk of overdosing, you can make a difference in that person's life," Varnell said.
Childs sees HB 712 as a positive step for North Carolina, but believes there is even more that can be done.
"This won't be as successful as a syringe exchange program, but it is a great first step for North Carolina," he said. "Syringe exchanges are shown to decrease HIV, decrease hepatitis, decrease needle sticks to law enforcement by 66 percent, decrease crime, get more people into treatment, they are fantastic operations. In North Carolina we hope the legislature will approve these kinds of programs in the future."
Agent Varnell agrees.
"Other states that have done needle exchanges show that almost 60 percent (of the users who take part) get some sort of treatment," he said. "The goal of almost every substance abuse program in America is treatment. In the future that is a program we have to look at."
The pilot program creates by HB 712 can expand after one year.
If the SBI concludes that it is successful, the agency's report to the lawmakers in the General Assembly could include a recommendation to expand into two additional counties for a second year.
Childs says one of the counties where he would like to see the program expand is New Hanover County. In fact, Childs has moved to Wilmington, to begin building the relationships with law enforcement and the community that can make it happen.
"We've identified this as one of the hot spots of North Carolina, in Brunswick & New Hanover counties," Childs said. "We're here to decrease mortality related to drug overdoses and to decrease mortality and infections around injection drug use. We viewed it as an easy decision to come here to decrease the mortality and increase safety with law enforcement."
"Opiods have no concern over how much money you make, whether you're the star athlete or the dropout," Varnell explained. "It doesn't care who you are. If it gets hold of you, you very often have to have help to break that cycle. Hopefully this program will offer that help to someone who on their own might never seek it."
Click here for a deeper look into the heroin epidemic in the Cape Fear region. On mobile? Look for the Hooked on Heroin section listed in the menu on the free WECT News App.