Largest U.S. needle exchange tries free meth pipes in Seattle

Thu May 14, 2015 9:34am EDT
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By Eric M. Johnson

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Occasional crystal meth smoker Richard Russell ambles up to a church storage garage in a Seattle alley and a recovering drug addict hands him two brand new meth pipes, no questions asked.

One of about two dozen methamphetamine users who received free bubble-ended pipes on a recent afternoon, Russell is a participant in a pioneering but illegal program launched in March that aims to indirectly curb infectious diseases.

"Dude's got something to smoke but he doesn't have a pipe, what's he going to do?" Russell said later as he munched on a sandwich. "Panhandle, steal. Inject."

The theory behind the handout program is that giving meth pipes to drug users may steer some away from needles, which are far riskier than smoking, especially if the user is sharing with another person infected with HIV or hepatitis C.

There is little scientific evidence to support that claim, but The People's Harm Reduction Alliance, a privately funded needle-swap group run by drug users, said it has distributed more than 1,000 pipes in Seattle in a matter of weeks and could expand to other cities in Washington state and Oregon.

Its program also draws addicts from society's fringes into its compassionate fold, with links to treatment and housing services, Executive Director Shilo Murphy said.

Even though needle exchanges have faced continued opposition in many parts of the United States since the first legal one opened in Tacoma, Washington in 1988, the programs have been credited with reducing HIV infections and saving lives.

But opponents say giving away meth pipes discourages quitting while wasting resources on an untested scheme that will not solve a city-wide health problem. They note that among methamphetamine-using gay men, HIV is transmitted primarily through unprotected sex, not syringe- or pipe-sharing.   Continued...

A man prepares to inject himself with heroin using a needle obtained from the People's Harm Reduction Alliance, the nation's largest needle-exchange program, in Seattle, Washington April 30, 2015. REUTERS/David Ryder