Local syringe exchange programs may now operate in Bexar County without participants being prosecuted for possession or distribution of drug paraphernalia, City and County officials said at an educational summit Wednesday.
Following nearly a decade of unsuccessful attempts at implementing a syringe exchange program to reduce the spread of infectious diseases among intravenous drug users, recent support for a program from local leaders helped propel health officials and advocates to “take advantage of the current political situation.”
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said that while the County received legal authority to implement a syringe exchange program in 2007, opposition from the district attorney at the time, Susan Reed, halted progress as she threatened to prosecute people facilitating needle exchanges for possessing drug paraphernalia.
“We were all very disappointed [with Reed’s decision] since we know from federal research that [syringe exchange programs] are and have been the right thing to do,” Wolff said.
Providing sterile needles to intravenous drug users helps stop the spread of disease and cuts down on costs associated with treating people who have contracted HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C, which Wolff said can cost up to $300,000 to treat. In recent years, addiction specialists and others have quietly been exchanging needles with drug users while trying to avoid law enforcement.
Because syringe exchange programs have received the blessing of District Attorney Nico LaHood, as well as both the Democratic and Republican candidates running to fill his seat in the upcoming November election, Wolff said the County is comfortable moving forward with supporting and implementing programs without concerns over legality. LaHood was defeated in the Democratic primary by Joe Gonzales, who faces Tylden Shaeffer in the general election.
While City and County officials at the summit declared support for health care providers and addiction specialists who provide syringe exchange services, San Antonio Metropolitan Health Director Colleen Bridger said that there is no public funding for the programs.
“It is religious organizations and nonprofits and pharmacies that are doing this because it is the right thing to do,” Bridger said. “What the County and City are doing is trying to make sure that everyone knows the resources that are available.”
Health care providers and addiction specialists joined City and County officials at the summit that took place at Living Church at Woodlawn Pointe, and provided attendees with kits that included syringes, saline solution, cotton balls, and alcohol swabs to distribute to drug users they may encounter.
Bridger said that local officials will continue to publicly state their support for syringe exchange programs, but that support from all levels of government will be key to securing funding to expand existing syringe exchange programs.
State Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio) said that the Texas House is looking into legislation supporting syringe exchange programs statewide that would also include restorative justice initiatives such as treatment and housing options, rather than jailing people for drug-related offenses. She said that she plans to work with Bexar County and the City of San Antonio to determine best practices before introducing legislation.
"There is generational [intravenous] drug use that happens in San Antonio that doesn't happen elsewhere in the state," Minjarez said. "We [are addressing it by] looking to see what is effective in other states so that we get the right bill passed."