Doors are Opening for Needle Exchange Programs in San Antonio, But There's Still Work to Do

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Syringe exchange programs are closer than ever to becoming a reality across Bexar County, due largely to local governmental support. That much was clear from today's Syringe Services Program Summit, organized by the city and county.

By trading intravenous-drug users' dirty needles for clean ones, the goal is to reduce the number of people infected with blood-borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. States and countries that have instituted these programs have reported dramatic reductions of these diseases, said William Martin, director of the Baker Institute of Public Policy's drug policy program, during the summit.

"At least eight major studies ... all unanimously concluded that access to clean syringes dramatically reduces instances of blood-borne diseases, and neither encourages people to start injecting drugs nor increases drug use by those who are already users," Martin said.

On Aug. 15, 2007, Bexar County commissioners created a needle-exchange program as part of a broader disease prevention effort. But the program ended when then-District Attorney Susan Reed threatened to charge anyone working on needle exchanges.

The county's program was possible because, in 2007, the late state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, a San Antonio Democrat, slipped an amendment clearing the way for an exchange pilot program in Bexar County into a major health-care funding bill.

A lot has changed over the last 11 years – namely, DA Nico LaHood, who defeated Reed at the polls in 2014 and supports syringe exchange programs – as long as they include information on treatment to addicts.

Advocates for needle-exchange programs, including Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and city Metropolitan Health District Director Colleen Bridger, are spreading the word that these efforts are permissible, with LaHood's support, and educating organizations that are ready to start their own.

"Right now, there is no public funding for this," Bridger said. "It is religious organizations and nonprofits and pharmacies that are doing this because it is the right thing to do... What the county and the city are doing is trying to make sure that everybody knows the resources that are available."

City and county officials, addiction-services and health-care organizations, and representatives from religious and nonprofit groups participated in Wednesday's summit. It took place at Living Church at Woodlawn Pointe.

First Assistant District Attorney Woodrow Halstead, who spoke on LaHood's behalf at the summit, said there's work still to be done at the state level.

"It's legal-ish for the time being," Halstead said. "I would suggest to all of you who are able to go out and vote to talk to your representatives, your state senators and get the actual change to the health and safety code implemented to make it very clear that not just to the DA here in Bexar County but to DAs across the state that this program, if implemented, should not lead to prosecution."

The Texas House of Representatives is looking into syringe exchanges as a part of their ongoing efforts to combat drug and opioid abuse, state Rep. Ina Minjarez, a San Antonio Democrat, said.

"We believe in restorative justice," Minjarez said. "I am hoping to be working with Bexar County and the city of San Antonio to introduce legislation on the needle exchange. That is going to be one of the bills I am going to be filing."

Denver McClendon, a trustee for Alamo Colleges, talked at the summit about the work of his late wife, Rep. Jones McClendon.

"This is God's work," McClendon said. "You are dealing with a population that is making some bad choices, but it should not be a life or death choice. The work that you are doing allows these folks to get some help."

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