This week, I wrote an article about a local problem that — while not a pretty subject at all — was necessary to address head-on, and that’s exactly what I hope our community leaders do too, when it comes to needles being left in public places.
After finding out about an employee of a local business finding a needle left in their bathroom last week, I decided to reach out to officials. Top officials at three local law enforcement agencies spoke to me about the stark reality our community is facing: intravenous drug users who leave their needles behind in public places — or worse yet, who might be cleaning blood off a needle for reuse by sticking it in a roll of toilet paper, leaving behind bloodborne pathogens and drugs. When I found that out, “bring your own toilet paper” immediately crossed my mind.
The reality is that an innocent person could get pricked by a discarded needle or even just touch the outside of it and be exposed to diseases or drugs.
This crisis isn’t going away anytime soon — in 2017, we did a series on illicit drug use and the opioid crisis as it relates to the Western Treasure Valley and it revealed that use of heroin and other hard drugs was a bigger problem in rural areas than in cities.
In fact, from 2012 to 2016 in Malheur County, there were 13 deaths as a result of opioid overdose, and our opioid overdose mortality rate was higher than Oregon’s overall rate and just slightly lower than the U.S. as a whole, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In October of 2018, the agency launched an online tool highlighting these statistics for each state, in an effort to urge “local leaders in small towns across our country” to “build grassroots solutions.”
Indeed, we are not unique in our situation — communities across the nation are faced with the outfall of the opioid crisis and users that leave their contaminated needles behind.
Ontario Police Lt. Jason Cooper urges businesses to create a plan to keep their employees safe from harm, which includes creating a plan of action in case a needle is found and could also include the added safety of having an official sharps container on site.
“Don’t touch them unless you absolutely have to,” was a common message from local officials.
Vigilance is urged overall. Especially to parents who might turn kids loose in a park without first doing a survey of the area. This cautionary advice was issued by multiple first responders.
I’m going to continue the conversation because I want to see measurable action taken to prevent a tragedy.
I think the conversation with youth needs to continue into the classrooms — especially about not picking up unknown objects. While many local classes take outings which sometimes include cleaning up trash, it is necessary to talk beforehand about items to avoid contact with.
More local conversation around the topic has centered around putting up sharps containers in or near places that needles are being left behind. These containers range from about $5 to $20, depending on the size.
While some people are critical of drug users saying they wouldn’t use them if they were available, facts prove otherwise.
It has been shown time and again in communities across the nation that have tackled the issue with sharps containers fewer needles have shown up in public places.
And some communities have gone so far as needle exchanges to prevent the spread of disease.
On Friday, I got the opportunity to speak with Christopher Plummer, of Ontario, who is the legal advocate for Project DOVE and who once volunteered in Chicago for The Night Ministry. It’s an organization that helps struggling community members in poor neighborhoods, and one of the many services they offered was a needle exchange for users.
Not only did this mean fewer dirty needles showing up in public places, it meant drug users had the opportunity to learn how to sterilize needles, offering “a great potential to reduce disease,” Plummer said. It also reduced the chance of infection, he said, where some intravenous drug users get infections that can lead to loss of limbs or even death.
“I think drug users get so demonized — but they’re just like everyone else,” Plummer said, with some being bad and others being good.
“The more we get together and have a conversation about it in a meaningful and proactive way, the better outcomes we’ll have,” he said.
I couldn’t agree more — I’d like to see many community leaders step up to the plate to keep this conversation going and work toward positive solutions.