For the second time in five years, the El Paso County Board of Health has put the brakes on a plan to create a syringe exchange program. The decision came at the end of an impassioned, three-hour-long meeting Monday morning, where concerned citizens, healthcare providers, and others voiced both support for and opposition to the plan.
The program was proposed by the Colorado Health Network, and would have established a facility on the west side of Colorado Springs where intravenous drug users could exchange used needles for new, clean ones. Advocates say such programs help reduce the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C, and can be a conduit to drug treatment programs for those seeking help. Critics of the proposal argue that providing needles to drug users enables addiction and puts the community at risk.
The board has been discussing Colorado Health Network’s needle exchange proposal since 2016, but interest increased following last week’s meeting of the Board of County Commissioners, when commissioners voted unanimously for a resolution opposing the needle exchange.
Dozens of people gathered at the El Paso County Citizens Service Center for the Monday morning meeting, which began at 7:30. Health board President Kari Kilroy, who led the meeting, remarked that she “doesn’t usually do this in front of such a big audience.”
Jessica Kobylinski, Progams Quality Officer for Colorado Health Network, addressed the Board of Health, outlining the public health benefits of needle exchange programs and explaining the organization’s proposal. CHN currently runs several exchanges in the state, but state law requires that counties approve any needle exchange program in their individual jurisdictions.
Under the proposal, CHN – a non-profit – would have funded the program out of its own budget and operated it using CHN staff. It would have been based at Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church, located at 1102 S 21st St. in Colorado Springs.
“I can’t explain the feeling in my gut when I have to give someone who I know has HIV and Hepatitis C, and I know is going to inject drugs, a bottle of bleach and some safe supplies,” Kobylinski told the board, “and have to plead with them to try and access a program in Denver or Pueblo to keep themselves and our community safer.”
Denver and Pueblo are the nearest cities with needle exchange programs. The Centers for Disease Control describes syringe exchange programs as “an effective component of a comprehensive, integrated approach” to preventing HIV and Hepatitis C among intravenous drug users. In her presentation, Kobylinski cited CDC and other research showing that people are also “five times as likely to enter treatment for substance use disorder” when they use a syringe exchange program.
Some members of the Board of Health expressed skepticism about those statistics. Board member Longinos Gonzalez, also a county commissioner, pointed out that communities in Colorado that currently have needle exchanges – such as Pueblo – have seen rates of Hepatitis C and HIV infections increase in recent years. Dr. Robert Weber, an infectious disease specialist in Colorado Springs, countered that increases in infection rates can be attributed to factors other than the ineffectiveness of a needle exchange program, such as increased rates of testing.
During the public comment period, citizens expressed concern that the program would send the wrong message about drug use. Luke Fallentine, a 24-year-old resident of Monument, said he had spent several years using heroin and meth intravenously. In his remarks, he described the program as “absolutely foolish.”
“The worst thing you can do for any drug addict is to enable them, and that’s exactly what this program is doing,” Fallentine said. “It’s telling people that there’s a safer way to do drugs. I think that’s a terrible thing to show our kids.”
While opponents appeared to outnumber supporters in the hearing, there were also those who spoke on behalf of the program. Reverend Alycia Erickson, pastor at Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church where the program would be housed, said that while she “understands the fear” that comes with the creation of a needle exchange program, “[intravenous drug use] exists already in our community."
"One question that I have for the El Paso County Board of Health," she continued, "is if you decide not to pass this, what plan do you have to address the issue of needles in our county?”
The board did not directly answer that question. However, after the meeting, board member and county commissioner Peggy Littleton – an opponent of the program – wondered whether the county could create “just a needle drop-off place… without actually receiving needles that would actually enable them to further their addiction.”
Though the board did not hold a formal vote on the proposal, an informal survey at the end of the meeting showed insufficient support among its members to advance the proposal any further. Board president Kari Kilroy, a supporter of the program, announced that the proposal would “not pass with this board at this time,” and said she considered the proposal effectively defeated.
After the meeting, Colorado Health Network CEO Darrell Vigil said he was “disappointed,” and added that he felt the board had “ignored the fact that there is scientific data that shows that programs like this help reduce the spread of blood-borne disease.”
As for whether his organization would try again to create a needle exchange program in the county, Vigil said, “I’m not sure exactly what the future holds, other than the fact that this organization will continue to support programs that prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases.”
Disclosure: Dr. Robert Weber serves on 91.5 KRCC's Community Advisory Board.