Las Vegas was the first in the country to install and maintain clean needle vending machines for people living with an active addiction. Not only can those who take part in the program get packages of clean needles every week, they also have the opportunity to get other sanitary supplies and turn in used needles as well. Currently, there are only three vending machines in Las Vegas dedicated to this purpose, but they have served 400 people this year alone and distributed 37,000 clean needles.
While some tout the new vending machines as a lifesaver for people living with an active addiction, others have a number of concerns. Here are just a few of the myths plaguing clean syringe vending machines and the truth about how this service is improving life in Las Vegas.
Myth #1: Vending machines encourage drug use by making needles more accessible.
Actually, vending machines make distribution of clean needles more efficient and effective. Needle exchanges are incredibly underfunded, and many are only open to the public for a couple of hours a week. It is not always easy for people who need clean needles to get to the location in time, and if they run out of clean needles, they are out of luck until the next exchange day. With a vending machine, there is less burden placed on the needle exchange providers and an increased chance that people who need clean needles will have access to them when they need them.
Myth #2: Anyone and everyone can now get needles. It’s not safe for the public!
People who want to use the clean needle vending machines are required to first sign up for the program. Once this process is complete, new clients receive a card or a code that allows them to access the machine. There is no other way to get needles and kits out of the machine. Cash, credit cards, and/or any form of payment are not accepted. Additionally, clients are limited to no more than two packs of 10 needles per week.
Myth #3: People who get needles will not feel like they have to turn dirty needles in to the program.
There is a large sharps container, or a safe container designated for the purpose of collecting used needles, right next to the clean needle vending machines. So far, people who use the vending machines (and likely, others as well) use the drop location to safely dispose of used needles rather than unsafely dropping them in trash cans or trying to flush them down the toilet.
Myth #4: Increasing access to needles puts public health at risk.
Clean needles are distributed expressly for the purpose of helping people living with addiction avoid sharing needles and potentially passing deadly diseases like hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS to other people. This protects the public in two ways. First, if fewer people have these diseases, there are fewer people to pass those diseases along to someone else – drug user or otherwise – through contact with fluids or needle sharing. Second, if fewer people living with addiction contract these diseases that require high-level and expensive treatment, then healthcare costs and health insurance costs are less burdensome on the public.
Myth #5: Clean needle vending machines normalize drug use and do nothing to help people connect with treatment.
At needle exchange vending sites, information about treatment options and educational materials about the nature of HIV and hepatitis C, and how they are passed from one person to another, diagnosed, and treated, are available Overdose prevention is a part of the education awareness program provided at clean needle exchange sites as well, helping people to stay alive and safe until they are in a place where they are ready to move forward with treatment and begin a life in recovery.
In fact, the only downside to clean needle vending machines is the cost. While some funds for the project have come from the Nevada AIDS Research and Education Society, private funding, and personal funding, there is no support from the federal government. The machines need to be refilled as many as two or three times a week, and that adds up.
The cost is justified by the savings to the community, however. For example, it costs about $100,000 to treat someone with hepatitis C but clean needles that can prevent the spread of the disease only cost about 6 cents each. More funding is needed to keep these machines up and running and reliable. It makes sense that the state healthcare systems and federal government, which stand to save money due to the efforts of harm reduction groups, should support these endeavors financially.
What do you think? Are clean needle exchanges important to Nevada’s ability to combat the opioid epidemic and its effects, or do the benefits not outweigh the costs in your opinion?