Nicholasville-Jessamine County last week became the fourth community in Kentucky to adopt a needle-exchange program.
Under the program, addicts exchange used needles for clean, sterile ones at the local health department. The goal is to slow the spread of hepatitis and HIV, which can be passed from one person to another through shared needles.
The program probably won’t start until the beginning of April, said Randy Gooch, public health director of the Jessamine County Health Department. When it starts, addicts will come into the health department at 210 E. Walnut St. in Nicholasville during certain hours one day a week. People wishing to exchange needles will be able to remain anonymous and will come in through an alternate entrance at the health department.
Users from outside Jessamine County will be allowed to participate, but Gooch doesn’t anticipate that many will do so.
“There are some things we need to work out before we actually begin the program,” Gooch said. “We want some time to do some marketing in the community and getting the word out for when we’re going to begin.”
Lexington, Louisville and the Pendleton County city of Falmouth have needle-exchange programs. Proposals have been under discussion in Frankfort, Paris and other communities across the state.
Jessamine Fiscal Court voted 4-2 for the program on Tuesday. Magistrates Burch Hager, Gary Morgan, Justin Ray and Terry Meckstroth voted for it, while April Rose Prather and Tim Vaughn voted against it.
Nicholasville City Commission gave its approval to the program earlier this month, Jessamine County Judge-Executive David West said.
The public-health goals of the program outweighed concerns about it enabling drug users, West said.
The Jessamine County Health Department has on-site counseling available for drug users. The needle-exchange program won’t require users to go into that counseling, but they will be made aware of it, Gooch said.
“We want to offer them the opportunity to engage with a licensed counselor so they can talk about their addiction and see if they’re ready to seek treatment for that,” Gooch said.
“Hopefully, this will be another avenue for these people to reach out if they want to break this cycle of drug dependency,” West said. “We don’t want people using drugs. We wish we could eradicate drugs. But at least you’ll be putting these people in contact with somebody who could help them if they ever reach that point.”
Gooch said he was pleased by the support that local law enforcement, emergency services, and the coroner gave to the program.
“We don’t condone illegal drug use at all, but we know it’s a huge issue in the community,” Gooch said. “This is one way that they feel the pros outweigh the cons.”
Law enforcement will continue to make arrests in regard to illegal drug use, “but they’re not going to stand watch over our program because they know that the benefits of this program outweigh them doing so,” Gooch said. “If we can get these dirty needles off the streets, that helps make their officers safer during a search, it helps make our community safer.”
The exchange program came about when Senate Bill 192 was signed into law last year. It allows local health departments to provide clean needles to users in exchange for used ones. The bill was passed as a result of Kentucky’s heroin epidemic.
“This is a huge problem throughout the state, not just in our community of Jessamine County and Nicholasville,” Gooch said. “It’s going to take all of us working together to make a difference. …If we’re able to engage one person and it ends up saving them from a drug overdose and it saves their life, it’s been a successful program.”