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NC stuck over decision to legalize needle exchanges

Source: WLOS Staff

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- News 13 investigates a sticking point between legislators in North Carolina.

Currently, needle exchange programs are illegal. Some Western North Carolina lawmakers want to change that, but discussions are stalled by another controversial measure -- HB2.

Those running Asheville's needle exchange say it's worth the risk of handing out clean needles, because it can reduce the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C.

When the News 13 I-Team checked the numbers, heroin use has skyrocketed; it's up more than 500 percent from 2010 to 2014. Also rapidly rising is injection drug use, causing Hepatitis C cases to also double for the same time period in North Carolina.

A PARENT'S STORY

"This was the day before we took her to rehab. She went out in the yard and took a picture," Julie Huneycutt said as she sifted through family pictures. "I cringe, actually, just sitting here talking to you. It's not an image of my daughter I like to have out there," she continued.

Anna Huneycutt struggled with addiction. Talking about it isn't easy for her mom.

"She was creative and she was talented, but yet there's a chemical that hijacked her brain that caused her to become an addict," Huneycutt explained.

Overusing the same needle nearly killed Anna.

"She did have an infection in her arm, from I guess what would have been a dirty needle. It sent her to the hospital for a whole week," Huneycutt said.

Anna recovered, but died a year later from a prescription drug overdose, leaving Huneycutt wanting to help others like Anna.

She created Anna's Hope and later became director of Hope RX, and pushed to increase access to the overdose reversal drug, Narcan.

At first, many said it would encourage drug use, but a recent phone call proves opinions are changing.

"Overdose on prescription pain meds, it was accidental, but the family got there and gave Narcan. Probably saved the guy's life. Just thought I'd let you know what you're doing is working. Keep up the good work with the awareness, and saving lives every day. Have a good night," came the recorded message from Julie Huneycutt's voicemail.

"It means a lot, and it does show a paradigm shift in our community. It shows there's been change, and that it's a good change," Huneycutt said.

Now she's considering another stigma-riddled program, the possibility of legalizing needle exchange programs in North Carolina.

"If we're going to look at saving lives and we're going to look at reducing HIV, transmitted diseases, Hepatitis, MRSA infections from dirty needles, then we have to have this conversation.

THE ASHEVILLE NEEDLE EXCHANGE PROGRAM

It's a discussion Michael Harney has pushed for since 1995, when he started handing out clean needles and syringes, creating the Needle Exchange Program of Asheville.

"Last year in Asheville area we made available 239,000 needles," Harney said.

Inside one of four technically illegal needle exchanges, Harney and those he works with weigh the risk of being charged, although authorities tend to look the other way with the health risk of not offering clean needles.

"Outside of a healthcare setting, not to have one available is really stressful," Harney said.

"Most people we have coming in are from Madison County, McDowell County, Avery County, a lot of people out of where Senator Ralph Hise represents, and I ask them how many people are you getting them for, and they say, 'I'm getting for eight households.' People on their block that are too scared to come," said Amanda Stem of the Western North Carolina AIDS Project, where she's an advocacy supervisor.

Those are counties the CDC says are at risk to be the next Scott County, Indiana. Last year, Indiana first declared a public health emergency when 160 new HIV cases emerged, and the number of cases grew from there.

Also among the top five percent of vulnerable counties in western North Carolina are Burke, Clay, Cherokee, Graham, and Wilkes Counties.

THE COST

Over time the costs can add up for taxpayers. Over a lifetime, to treat a person infected with HIV can cost the state $367,000-- and that's just for the HIV treatment, not other health ailments that can accompany the disease.

Treatment for someone who is infected with Hepatitis C can cost as much as $100,000 for an individual over their lifetime.

The cost of prevention at a needle exchange can be bought for as little as a dollar for every ten needles.

WNC LAWMAKERS TAKE ON THE ISSUE

"I'm determined to keep talking about it," said Sen. Terry Van Duyn (D)-Buncombe County.

Van Duyn sits on the Health and Human Services board. She co-sponsored legislation to legalize exchanges and points naysayers who claim it promotes drug use to the research.

"Now that we have evidence that that's not the case. In fact the American Medical Association has said that as long as it's partnered with good drug treatment information, needle exchange programs are a good thing, I think that stigma ought to go away," said Van Duyn.

So while Huneycutt isn't 100 percent sold on this solution, she says anything that can help is worth talking through.

"I think I'm at that age finally it's like, You know what? I don't know the answers, and I'm willing to try. And I'm just willing to do whatever we can to help someone. And you know if that's, like, hand them something clean because I know they're going to go down to the street corner and buy a bag of heroin, let them have it," said Huneycutt.

News 13 reached out to Sen. Ralph Hise's office, we were promised a response, but told he was busy with the budget.

At least one sheriff's office here in western North Carolina says if they find a needle exchange, they'll charge the individuals, they don't see them as legal. Other law enforcement, we're told, looks the other way on these programs, seeing them as helping out the public health risk associated with dirty needles.

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