Politics

Local governments are already moving to set up needle exchanges just a day after the Kentucky state legislature authorized the programs through a comprehensive heroin bill.

If implemented, drug users would be able to exchange dirty needles for clean ones from local public health departments.

Rice Leach, the commissioner of the Lexington-Fayette County Public Health Department, said needle exchanges would stymie the transfer of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV.

“From a public health point of view it’s a perfect way to reduce the spread of diseases if not managed properly,” Leach said. “And those diseases manage to work their way into the population that does not use drugs.”

Public health departments in Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky have indicated they support needle exchanges and are working with local councils to approve programs.

In a statement, the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness said officials were “studying the possibility of local implementation.” The Louisville officials will examine cost, locations and possible partners for an exchange, the department said in a statement, adding that “there are still many steps and questions that need to be examined, including costs, locations and possible partners for the exchange.”

The Northern Kentucky Health Department, which serves Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton Counties also said they are looking into setting up a needle exchange, but were still searching for funding for the program.

The comprehensive heroin bill signed by Gov. Steve Beshear on Wednesday allocated $10 million for drug treatment programs, which would not apply to needle exchanges.

The needle exchange provision in the heroin bill proved to be a major sticking point for conservative lawmakers in the Kentucky General Assembly.

In the final debate surrounding the bill, Shelbyville Republican Sen. Paul Hornback said the government effectively condones drug use by implementing a needle exchange.

“That’s enabling somebody,” he said.

Before the heroin bill’s passage, local governments in Kentucky were forbidden from setting up needle exchanges because the needles would have been considered drug paraphernalia under the state’s drug laws.

Scott White, chairman of Fayette County’s Board of Health, said that a needle exchange will be a first point of contact between addicts and treatment, “which is ultimately what you hope happens—that they get into some program that helps them get off that stuff and returns to just a regular life.

“We’re taking our heads out of the sand and dealing with the reality and the reality is that it will promote a much better public health.”

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.