October 21, 2021

C’ville continues syringe exchange program

Cortlandville will continue a needle exchange program, the town board has decided, over the objections of the Cortland County district attorney.

Last month, the town board approved the decision to have a mobile exchange vehicle and to soon allow the full program — but details still needed to be worked out, and not everyone was on board.

District Attorney Patrick Perfetti told town officials Wednesday that public health and public safety aren’t aligned, and that he does not support the proposed needle-exchange program.

“I don’t think anybody on this board needs to be alert to the idea that there is an opioid epidemic, and that it has come to our area,” Perfetti said. “In fact, the Cortland County coroner, about this time last year, had to go back to the Legislature to ask for an increase in her budget line item for autopsies due to opioid-related overdose deaths.”

But Perfetti does not believe issuing clean needles will be the solution, saying “The idea that people who are substance abusers can’t find sanitary needles is ridiculous.”

“As far as my office is concerned, and the aspect of public safety, this is not a measure that we will back,” Perfetti said.

However, that’s not the point.

“New users of syringe services programs are five times more likely to enter drug treatment, but they are also three times more likely to stop using drugs than folks who don’t use these lifesaving programs,” Assembly Member Anna Kelles said Tuesday at a candlelight vigil to remember people who have died from overdoses.

Kelles (D-Ithaca) is working to decriminalize the possession of syringes — a bill passed at the state Legislature now awaits Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature to become a law.

In 2015, the CDC’s National HIV Behavioral Surveillance System found that the more syringes distributed per the number of people who inject drugs in that area, the more likely that used syringes would be disposed of safely.

“Syringe services programs are incredibly important, because this is about support, it’s about treating people like humans,” Kelles said. “At the end of the day, our No. 1 purpose is to help people and prevent death, and to treat them like a human with dignity, support them and get them to treatment to rebuild their lives.”

Paul Mikowski, an Ithaca-based psychologist, said at the town board meeting that an exchange would at least solve the problem of spreading disease.

“Even people who are addicted have good moments where they want to help others. They don’t want to leave needles out for people to step on,” Mikowski said.

Dean O’Gorman’s son, Spencer Michael O’Gorman, died of an overdose four years ago. O’Gorman has since joined the Healing Hearts Collaborative and became a naloxone trainer to help substance users and their families prevent overdose deaths.

“Every overdose in today’s world is preventable with all the harm reduction measures that we’ve had, the changes that we keep seeing, and the policies and procedures that get made by decision-makers like you guys,” O’Gorman told the town board Wednesday. “Are you taking lives or saving lives? Where we’re at now, is the choice that you guys get to make — which policy and what procedures — as we move forward.”

In Tompkins County, a needle exchange program saw a return rate of 104%, Kelles said.

“They get more needles back than they distribute in the community, because the people who are using them are not only bringing back the needles they have, but they’re bringing back the needles that are being brought into the community from other people or other places,” she said.

Perfetti said he doesn’t believe substance users lack access to sanitary needles.

“We have seven pharmacies in our community, and all seven are part of programs that will provide needles so that substance abusers who are not ready to get clean can find a safe way — at least from an infection point of view — to administer drugs,” Perfetti said.

However, access to syringes through local pharmacies addresses only one element of harm reduction, said Matt Whitman, executive director of Cortland Area Communities that Care.

“What that does not help them do is get access to services that they might need to help them on the road to recovery — to treat them for substance use disorders,” Whitman said. “That is what a potential syringe exchange program could provide to the residents of Cortlandville and in the rest of the county.”