Every Saturday from noon to 3 p.m., you can find Lyndsay Hartman outside the Kane County coroner’s office in Geneva, the hatch of her Chevy HHR popped open to display plastic bins filled with everything a drug user might need to stay alive.
Clean needles for those who inject. Clean plastic straws for those who snort. Brochures detailing how to use more safely. Strips of test paper that detects the presence of fentanyl. And plenty of naloxone, a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.
Harman, who runs a needle exchange called Point to Point, is there at the invitation of the Kane County government, even though what she’s doing isn’t unambiguously legal.
State law has been unclear about the status of programs like hers — syringes are considered illegal drug paraphernalia in some circumstances — and she’s concerned that the people she serves might get in trouble.
“I don’t care about me,” she said. “I’ve done my homework. I’ve done my research. I’ve shown my face in front of the people who need to know. But when my participants ask me, ‘What if I leave here and get pulled over?’ — I want to be able to tell them it’s OK.”
A bill approved this week by the Illinois General Assembly aims to clarify the status of needle exchanges, offering protection to both operators and patrons. It has passed both chambers and is headed to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who some backers believe will sign it into law.
Its lead sponsor, Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, did not respond to requests for comment, but others said the bill is needed even though police and prosecutors have become more compassionate with drug users, emphasizing treatment over punishment.
Laura Fry of Live4Lali, a harm reduction organization that started an exchange in Lake County, said police occasionally confiscated needles and naloxone from people the group served.
“We’re really doing our police officers a service by taking (such items) out of their concern,” she said.
Illinois’ needle exchanges have existed in a legal gray zone for decades. Originally established to fight the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis C, they accepted used syringes and replaced them with clean ones, even though possessing a syringe without a prescription was against the law.
Exchanges like Chicago Recovery Alliance got around that by partnering with universities, technically making their services part of a research project. But as the opioid crisis has grown in recent years, some say that formality should end.
“The research is in,” said Dan Rabbitt, senior project manager for health policy for the Heartland Alliance advocacy group. “Needle exchange programs are safe and effective and an important part of the continuum that helps drug users.”
They are also relatively rare in Illinois. A few operate in Chicago, the near suburbs and Lake County, but only a handful exist elsewhere in the state, Rabbitt said.
Hartman started hers in Kane County last year after coming up with the idea in a social entrepreneurship class at North Central College. A friend struggled with heroin, she said, and she witnessed the difficulty he had finding what he needed to use more safely.
The notion of starting a suburban needle exchange also appealed to the social conscience she developed as a kid growing up in Naperville, marching in peace rallies and building houses on church trips.
“I have it in me to be an ally for these people, so why wouldn’t I do it?” she said. “They need someone. Their families and loved ones have been sucked in and exhausted. I can just come in and treat them with compassion because they’re not putting my life into upheaval. My only job is to love them and say, ‘Here — I got you.’”
Despite the uncertain legality of needle exchanges, she swiftly received encouragement from Kane County officials such as Coroner Rob Russell, who saw the county tally 68 fatal overdoses last year.
“I’m a conservative Republican, so on the surface, it’s like, ‘Aren’t we helping (drug users) do their thing?’” Russell said. “But when the facts stare you in the face, and the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says people in harm reduction programs are seven times more likely to get treatment, that gets my attention. The only way we’re going to stop the deaths is to make things more treatment-friendly.”
Hartman’s Saturday spot outside Russell’s office, chosen because she can dispose of used syringes there, has the advantage of being relatively secluded. Few cars passed by one recent afternoon, a sign of the privacy available to anyone who shows up.
The problem is that few people have so far. Hartman said while she has helped around 30 people since starting, she’ll sometimes go an entire weekend without anyone stopping by.
“It’s just not built into people’s routine yet,” she said. “If you don’t think there’s a need for it you’re not paying attention. It’s just a matter of taking the time to build the trust with that population.”
Keri Ballweber, a former heroin user who works as Point to Point’s peer advocate, said the stigma against drugs is so strong that even people who know her story are hesitant to accept her help, saying they’re going to quit on their own.
“I feel like people still expect me to judge them for it,” she said.
Point to Point also works at Aurora’s Open Door Health Center from 10 a.m. to noon on Sundays, but Hartman said she’d like to do more street outreach, meeting drug users where they’re comfortable instead of asking them to come to her.
Should Illinois clarify the legal status of needle exchanges, she said, she’ll be able to travel with confidence that the people she helps won’t have to worry about arrest.
“When we start treating people with compassion, that fills something in them,” she said. “But people are suffering and we’re not doing anything about it. We still have a population that’s using (drugs) that we have to address, and show them some love, too.”
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May 30, 2019 at 05:06AM