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Lawrence County Commissioners Put End To Needle Exchange Program
Updated October 17, 2017 2:34 PM
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(BEDFORD) - The Lawrence County Commissioners effectively ended the county's needle exchange program which began in 2015 after the former county's commissioners declared a public health emergency because of the large number of hepatitis cases.

The program has not been available for two weeks, because that contract expired. Those seeking help will now have to travel to Monroe County for help.

After hearing from several officials in support of continuing the program, Commission President Gene McCracken asked for a second so a vote could be taken to continue the program. Both Commissioners Rodney Fish and Dustin Gabhart failed to second the motion, killing the request.

Both Fish and Gabhart said they couldn't morally endorse a program that provides illegal paraphernalia to drug uses.

"If you think, I am less concerned or less passionate for people you are wrong...I can't bury my own principals and morals to support this program," Fish added.

Chris Abert, project director for Indiana Recovery Alliance, a Bloomington-based nonprofit that runs needles exchange programs stormed out of the meeting saying "you are killing people" after hearing Fish's reasons for not supporting the program.

Others also spoke out of turn interrupting both Fish and Gabhart while they voiced their response to the vote.

Both Fish and Gabhart want to see local healthcare providers step up and help with rehabilitation programs.

"They have the means to do this and they need to," says Gabhart. "I want to see us successfully do away with the addiction and address the issue not provide needles to users. Residents and police are finding more and more discarded needles and that is a concern."

Local law enforcement say they continue to find needles discarded on public and private property.

Bedford Police Chief Dennis Parsley says if it is going to be a needle exchange program then it needs to be that.

"If we're going to make it an exchange, let's make it a true exchange. If I'm bringing in 10 syringes, I should get 10 syringes. I think that would eliminate a lot of the problems," Chief Parsley added.

In 19 days, Bedford Police officers have picked up 9 discarded needles within the city limits.

Mitchell Police Chief Mike Johnson says the number of calls officers receives about syringes found in streets, and public areas is troublesome. Johnson says addicts are shooting up and then just leaving their used syringes behind where children and pet can get stuck.

Prosecutor Michelle Woodward was the only person who spoke out during the commissioners meeting against the needle exchange program saying she cannot and will not offer support for the needle exchange program, because it makes it easier to facilitate the use of illegal drugs.

"I understand the public health issue that is driving the request for a needle exchange program. ... I would submit that the real problem causing the epidemic proportions of HIV and hepatitis C in our state and community is illegal drug use."

Needle exchange advocates insist the program is vital, saying 52 lives were saved in Lawrence County from Narcan.

"That is 52 families that didn't have to bury a loved one," says Jared Stancombe, whose brother is an addict and is in support of needle exchange programs. "

Abert says most of those using the needle exchange are between the ages of 15 and 24.

"This is the fastest growing age's heartbreaking," Abert says "The program gives them a change to seek help and recover to lead productive lives."

Chris Abert, project director for Indiana Recovery Alliance says the program cost nothing for Lawrence County. The program is funded through grants.

"By 2021 more than 500,000 people will lose their lives to drugs or drug related diseases," he added.

He says Lawrence County doesn't want to be in the position that Scott County is in.

"They have 226 cases of hepatitis C and no one wants to stop in Austin (which is located in Scott County) for a sandwich," he added. "If this disease is not stopped it will financially ruin this county. It will get worse before it gets better without this program."

Superior Court I Judge Michael Robbins, who also serves on the county health board supports the program.

"This is a three part issue - budget, risks to public health and moral issues," he added. "Arresting, prosecuting and sending them to prison is not a way out of this problem. We have to address the addition."

Doctor George Sorrells agreed.

"We have a public health emergency with hepatitis C," he added. "This program is proven to reduce the rate of hepatitis C and the exchange program is slowing the transmission of diseases."

Advocates for the program are concerned without it the county will see an increase of hepatitis C cases.

Former Coroner John Sherrill, who also serves on the health board says this is not a moral or religious issue. It is a public health issue.

"That's why we're here. We can't turn a blind eye to this."

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