It's no secret that heroin addiction has become an epidemic—and North Carolina isn't immune. Nationally, the number of heroin-overdose deaths spiked from 2,452 in 2010 to 10,574 in 2014, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Likewise, in North Carolina, heroin-overdose deaths have jumped from 38 in 2010 to 253 in 2014.
Another problem associated with heroin is infectious diseases—especially HIV and hepatitis C—spread by the sharing of needles. As the heroin epidemic has grown, so too has the number of hep C cases, both here and nationwide. North Carolina's Medicaid payments for hepatitis C jumped from $8 million in 2013 to $61 million in 2015, according to the Triangle Business Journal.
To combat this scourge, needle-exchange programs have popped up across the country. In addition to protecting addicts from infectious diseases, these programs also offer support to help get them clean. The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition says the programs' participants are five times more likely to seek treatment than their peers.
The idea dates back to the eighties, but it has long met with resistance from those who believe these programs facilitate drug use. In 1988, Congress prohibited federal funding for needle exchanges. A decade later, with evidence mounting that these programs worked, the Clinton administration considered reversing the ban but backed off after criticism from Republicans.
But with the epidemic raging, the tide seems to have turned. Late last year, Congress reversed the federal funding ban. States and local governments can now seek federal dollars to help sustain needle exchanges.
At least 210 such programs are currently operating in thirty-five states and Washington, D.C., according to the North American Syringe Exchange Network. Several exist in North Carolina, but the exact number is hard to pin down. They operate underground—tolerated but not sanctioned by local officials.
After all, the state's paraphernalia laws make needle exchanges illegal.
That, too, could soon change. Last month, Senator Stan Bingham, R-Davidson, introduced Senate Bill 794, which would legalize needle-exchange programs.
"Other states that have had needle-exchange programs have been able to demonstrate that these programs do not encourage drug use, but they do prevent blood-borne diseases," says Senator Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, who cosponsored the bill. Van Duyn also serves on the Buncombe County Health and Human Services Board. "We've had a needle-exchange program for some time, and it works," she says.
But it's still been difficult to get the state to act. The N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition has been pushing a bill like this for the last five years, with no luck.
In 2013, two House Democrats introduced legislation to decriminalize the possession of needles, but it went nowhere. That bill, however, was only sponsored by Democrats; Bingham's bill has seven Republican and four Democratic cosponsors, which means the legislature's Republican majority is more likely to take it seriously.
Bingham admits there's been opposition from law enforcement. He also notes that the upcoming election means politics could get in the way in this year's short session. Regardless, Bingham says, he feels good about his bill's chances.
"I'm confident that if we can't get something done in the short session, then we'll be able to do it next year," he says. "We can put our heads in the sand and forget about it. But it's here, and we need to address it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Move the Needle"