Changes could come to needle exchange program

Around 300,000 syringes have been handed out in 2016

A La Crosse area needle exchange program for drug users may take on a new role after a record number of needles were handed out this year.

The AIDS Resource Center runs a needle exchange program to prevent the spread of serious diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis c among drug users.

So far in 2016, the center has handed out around 300,000 needles in La Crosse, compared to only 11,000 in 2008.

It’s a staggering number, but changes could soon be on the way to help reduce it.

The news of the needles in La Crosse has left city leaders in ready to take action.

“With that many needles laying around our community, there’s an environmental issue, as well as public health,” La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat said.

“We at the La Crosse Police Department do believe it’s contributing to the issue that we experience on a daily basis of unsafely discarded needles in public places, parking ramps, parks, people’s backyards,” La Crosse Police Deptartment Capt. Jason Melby said.

But even more concerning is how many needles the La Crosse Police Department are finding.

“Last year alone, we had taken 36 pounds — 36 pounds of discarded needles to the hazardous dump ourselves,” Melby said. “The average empty needle is less than 0.1 ounce.”

“It seems like La Crosse is the only area where this is consistently becoming a problem,” Scott Stokesm, director of prevention services for the AIDS Resource Center, said.

It’s why city leaders and the AIDS Resource Center met last month to discuss ways to reduce the number of needles being found on the street.

“They have been in meetings. They have come to the table,” Melby said.

“Instead of dispatch calling the Fire Department and the fire squad responds to discarded syringes, maybe they can ask us first, and give us the first opportunity to get into the community and pick up the discarded syringes,” Stokes said.

Other ideas brought up at the meeting include creating needle drop-off sites.

“Very similar to our prescription drug drop-off that we have here, is there a possibility of having a needle drop-off,” Kabat said.

The open communication between the groups has provided a sense of optimism.

“Any time that you can bring a couple different of organizations together that are key stakeholders to address a problem, and try to be proactive about it, I definitely think there’s a way to improve the situation in the city,” Melby said.

There is no set timetable for any of these changes, but city leaders are hoping to see decrease in the number of discarded needles next year.

The AIDS Resource Center has also expressed a desire to label their needles to better identify where these needles are coming from.

City leaders would like the center to include in their needle kits more resources to help users quit.