Second Indiana County Shuts Down Syringe Exchange Program

Oct 18, 2017

Chris Abert of the Indiana Recovery Alliance testifies at the Lawrence County Commissioner's meeting Tuesday night.
Credit Steve Burns / WTIU

The Lawrence County commissioners voted Tuesday to end the southern Indiana county’s syringe exchange program. The county is the second in the state to close its program down.

The exchange, up for renewal after a year of operation, was suspended earlier this month, pending renewal by the county’s commissioners.

Groups for and against the program spoke at the commissioner’s meeting Tuesday night. Ultimately, a motion to renew was not carried and the program was declared null and void.

In Indiana, syringe exchanges don’t operate in perpetuity — they must be renewed periodically. Many counties, such as Monroe and Clark, have renewed their programs.

Earlier this year, Madison County, northeast of Indianapolis, pulled funding for its program amid worries the exchange resulted in increased drug use in the area. Madison County health officials are looking for an outside group to resume the services.

County Commissioner Dustin Gabhart chose not to support the syringe exchange program’s renewal. He said it was a difficult choice, but his decision came from community opposition and what he saw as a moral objection to the program.

“It came down to morally, they’re breaking the law. I can’t condone that,” Gabhart said. “Yes, it’s a problem. Yes, it needs to be resolved. I could not give them the tools to do it.”

The program did not receive funding from the county or state. It was run by the nonprofit organization Indiana Recovery Alliance, which also manages the Monroe County, Indiana syringe exchange program.

Lawrence County resident Jared Stancombe, who has worked with the Indiana Recovery Alliance, said without a syringe exchange, the county could see an increase in cases of Hepatitis C and HIV, which could result in higher cost in the long-run.

“I worry that Lawrence County is going to be the next Scott County,” Stancombe said. “We’re going to see businesses shutter. We’re going to see young people like me leave.”

Program director Chris Abert said the group will make resources available to anyone regardless of their county of residence.

Abert said there has been an 80 percent reduction in infectious diseases in Lawrence County since the needle exchange began.

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill has publicly sparred with federal health officials over the effectiveness of syringe exchanges. Hill has said the programs increase drug use, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains the programs are “effective in reducing HIV transmission and do not increase rates of community drug use.”

This story originally appeared on WFIU News.