Health program provides free needles, pipes in California

Published: Apr. 21, 2023 at 10:01 AM EDT
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. (KESQ) - A health program is handing out free, sterile supplies, such as needles and crackpipes, to people with drug addiction issues in California. And soon, they’ll be available in vending machines.

However, members of the community are asking if the new program for drug users is helpful or enabling.

People lined up to receive a variety of free supplies at a church parking lot. Supplies like clean syringes and containers, cookers, rubber tie-offs and two different kinds of pipes are offered, all provided by the organization DAP Health.

“It’s important to give them this because what we’re looking to do, certainly kind of overarching, is save lives, reduce HIV and (hepatitis) C transmission, and have people be as healthy as they can be,” said Neil Gussardo, the harm reduction supervisor for DAP Health.

A homeless man, who did not want to show his face, said he also shares the items with those who need them.

“More hygienic, safer, cleaner, sterile, I guess,” he said. “Most of the time people just resort to using dirty needles or something because they have no choice and their addiction draws them to it, so it’d be nice to save someone from that.”

Five days a week, the organization’s mobile clinic goes to locations throughout Palm Springs to hand out the items as part of its harm reduction program.

“So, harm reduction is really about meeting people where they’re at in their journey with addiction,” said C.J. Tobe, the director of community health and sexual wellness services at DAP Health. “Some people are going to show up today, and they’re going to take equipment back home with them that’s going to save their life, maybe their neighbor’s or their family.”

Tobe said DAP Health also provides outpatient drug-free programs for those who come by wanting to end their addiction, but not everyone is at that part of their journey.

“And other people are at part of their journey right now where they just want a hug, and they want somebody to talk to for 10 minutes because this is the one spot where they can be treated like a human, because that’s what they are,” he said.

The program also provides Narcan, a medication that reverses opioid overdoses, and fentanyl test strips.

Overdose deaths involving fentanyl are surging, with some cities seeing major jumps in numbers from 2020 to last year.

DAP Health said it has provided supplies to about 2,600 people in Palm Springs over the past year. More than half were referred to support services, including recovery centers.

The group said the Narcan they provided is credited with reversing more than 1,000 overdoses.

Beginning this summer, the organization plans to set up vending machines with all these items.

However, not everyone’s on board.

“I see harm reduction as really dangerous. And it’s essentially enabling people addicted to opiates,” Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin said.

Hestrin said that in the age of fentanyl, there’s no safe way for anyone to use drugs.

“I think they should educate themselves. Yes, I understand they’re trying to be compassionate. They see people that are hopelessly hooked on drugs, and they’re addicted,” Hestrin said. “The best thing we can do is to get them to some type of rehabilitation center, get those addicts the help they need to get off drugs and stop using illegal street drugs.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Jim Palmer, the president of the Orange County Rescue Mission and one of the state’s most outspoken critics when it comes to harm reduction programs.

“It’s such a great two words: ‘harm reduction.’ It sounds wonderful, but you have to think and play this out,” Palmer said. “What does this actually mean to that individual? Are you showing them compassion by helping facilitate putting deadly things in their body that are slowly killing them? Or do you find a way to develop a relationship and a solution through sobriety and treatment?”

In response to critics, Gussardo said the program gives people the chance to change by reducing their chances of dying from drug abuse.

“My response to that is if a person is not alive, they don’t have the opportunity for growth and change,” Gussardo said.

Meanwhile, the homeless man receiving supplies is grateful for all the items, which he said help to keep him and other drug users safe. He also called critics of the program “hypocrites.”

“It’s only a bad program until they need it,” he said. “It’s realistic. It doesn’t take a blind eye to what’s actually going on.”

Right now, DAP Health is the only organization in the area authorized by the state to operate this type of program and is only permitted to operate in Palm Springs.