On a 2-1 vote, Daviess County Commissioners have passed a resolution saying that at this time they will not approve a needle exchange program. The resolution had been sought by Daviess County Prosecutor Dan Murrie and both the Washington City Police Department and the Daviess County Sheriff's Department.
"I am extraordinarily happy," said Murrie. "This is a step in the right direction for us. Needle exchange is just not a good fit for us here in Daviess County."
The resolution passed by the commissioners was slightly different from the one presented by Murrie last month. It added the phrase "at this time." Officials say the caveat still allows them to say they do not want to begin the program in the county, but leaves open the possibility of changing their minds if a health crisis should arise.
"We don't need it today," said President of the Daviess County Commissioners Nathan Gabhart. "Now, we can pass it and move on. We said today as of June 11 at 9 a.m. we will not begin a needle exchange program. This is nothing against Dan, but we have so many pressing issues we need to be working on. Working on a hypothetical situation that has not presented itself yet is a waste of time in my opinion."
While Gabhart and Commissioner Michael Taylor voted in favor of the anti-needle exchange resolution, Commissioner Tom McCracken voted against it. He said he did not like the qualifying language and preferred the original version that had been approved unanimously by the Daviess County Council.
"I don't want to contribute to someone's drug use," said McCracken. "I know there could be an epidemic sometime. You can get a state of emergency and take that on then. I'm just not happy with continuing somebody's drug use."
Choice now up to counties
Needle exchange programs used to require action by the governor to be implemented in Indiana. With the growing opioid problem in the state, the General Assembly left that choice up to local counties. Murrie says the anti-needle exchange ordinance is an attempt to keep the problem at arm's length.
"The psychological component here, the statement that it makes when the community ways we don't want this here," said Murrie. "We're against drug users. We are against drug dealing. We are not a place where we want to attract this kind of environment. That's a big deal for us."
"You have to be preventative," added Gabhart. "I get that, but to say what you are going to do before a situation presents itself is ridiculous."
While Gabhart and Murrie may have differing views on the need for a current resolution they do agree that what is called a needle exchange program is a lot more than needles.
"What I was presented with just doesn't seem like a good fit when you are giving away a tourniquet, a heroin cooker, a syringe, a clean needle, the swabs and all of that," said Murrie.
"A whole drug kit is ridiculous," added Gabhart. "As a pharmacist, I'm closer to this than any of the people talking about it. Clearly, we don't want to be facilitating drug use."
Hepatitis C coming?
Gabhart says he does not want the county to have its hands tied in the event a health crisis erupts.
"Hepatitis C is coming our way," he said. "The rates have skyrocketed in Indiana. You just don't know what you would do until the situation presents itself. If someone comes to us for help and they are spreading Hepatitis C at a cost of $200,000 a patient to our community and you or someone in you family gets it and a clean needle would have prevented that then you perspective would change a little bit."
For Murrie, the worry is more about addiction deaths than health problems.
"We have a heroin epidemic and it is coming from the east," he said. "People are dying. That's our argument against needle exchange that we are trading chronic health problems for instant death. To me, that is not a worthwhile exchange."
Murrie contends that by limiting needle exchange programs, the county can avoid some of the problems other communities are now facing.
"I hear from my colleagues around the state that you start giving away needles, you start finding them in your public parks. You start finding them in your ball fields and I worry about that," he said. "I don't have a great answer. I know scarcity works. I've seen it work in other places. Until I see something else work, I'm going to keep pushing that."
The eventual answer to the opioid issue and the outbreak of heroin addiction in rural Indiana may be one that requires a lot of effort and a willingness to try different approaches.
"People trapped on the side of a mountain will cut their arm off with a pocket knife to escape, so you just don't know until you get there," said Gabhart.
"I know there are thousands out there struggling with heroin and opioid addiction," added Murrie. "I am reaching out to them too. I don't claim to have all the answers, and I think it is going to take all of us working together to come up with a solution. It's going to take people in the health care industry. It's going to take people in government and law enforcement to come up with what works. I'm worried about this. I am trying to protect everybody in Daviess County. It's going to be our next big challenge."