CLARK COUNTY — Since it opened in January, the Clark County needle exchange, known as The Interchange, has served more than 140 people.
Members are able to exchange used syringes for clean ones, get HIV and Hepatitis C testing and health and treatment counseling, if they choose.
Though the program is anonymous, members are issued a numerical identification card that shows they are part of the program. It's used to show staff at The Interchange whether the person has been there before and what their HIV and Hepatitis C status is.
But what, if any, difference does having the card make if a person is arrested and found with the syringes? According to state law, a person can be charged with a Level 6 felony if found with “a hypodermic syringe or needle or an instrument adapted for the use of a controlled substance or legend drug by injection in a human being.”
But there is still some room for discretion within police departments as to how to handle possession of a syringe.
In Clark County, the Sheriff's Office takes into account whether a person has a membership card to The Interchange, when considering charges for having the syringes, Lt. Col Scottie Maples said.
“If they present a card, there is no arrest made unless there are drugs found,” Maples said. “And then the arrest would be made on the drugs but they would not be charged for the syringe if they have the card.”
Clarksville Police Chief Mark Palmer sees it a little differently.
“The needle exchange does not affect that at all,” he said, regarding how his officers respond to syringe possession. “If you're in possession of a syringe, that's against the law and you will go to jail — unless the law changes or if for some reason there's some type of exclusion and at that point of course we'll honor it.”
Clark County Circuit Court No. 2 Judge Brad Jacobs gets most of the drug charges in the county on his docket. He said he has had offenders tell him they are part of the program but unless they present a card to him, there isn't much he can do on his end with dropping a possession charge.
“Unless there's a card with them, there's nothing I can do,” he said. “If they say there was but the police officer doesn't have it in the report whether there was or not, I've got no way of verifying that because it's all confidential.
“[And] I've got to follow the same rules as everybody else. If somebody commits the offense ... and the prosecutor wants [them to go to trial,] I don't have the option of finding them not guilty by way of the card."
It's possible that charges could be modified if a person presented the card to the prosecutor's office during pretrial activities, but it was not clear by press time if this has come into play since The Interchange opened.
And many see the program as useful to combating the health effects of the opioid crisis, even if it is what they call a necessary evil.
“I hate it and I love it,” Jacobs said. “I hate it the same way you have to hate coffins for children — you wish it didn't have to exist but it does.
“It's a thing we've got to deal with. Unfortunately, we cant make the opioid epidemic go away, [but] there are other things we've got to address and right now I think this is one of the good options we have.”
He said that while opponents to the program may see it as a way to enable users by giving them supplies to use the drugs, there's a larger issue.
“It's not a method of preventing abuse; it's strictly a method of preventing HIV, Hepatitis C,” he said. “Seatbelts and airbags don't keep you from speeding but if you do and you get in a wreck, you're going to be safer.”
Palmer said he wants to give the program a full year to see what the effects are, but said he would like to see more emphasis on treatment and education options than giving out the needles.
In the meantime, his and other law enforcement agencies are ramping up proactive measures to help fight the opioid crisis.
In Clarksville, Palmer has patrols focusing on areas known for more concentrated drug use.
“We're focusing on trouble spots,” Palmer said. “Those are resulting in more arrests in those areas.
"I don't know if you'll actually be able to stop [usage] altogether, but at least you can show that you're going to address it.”
The sheriff's office is tackling the issue from a different angle — by going after the source.
“The sheriff's (Jamey Noel) goal is to target drug dealers and try to make arrests on them,” Maples said. “We have a full-time guy that's targeting dealers, not so much users.”
The office also participates in Clark County CARES and has been involved in events to help educate the public on opioid abuse.
Jacobs said that while he does see value in The Interchange as a public safety measure, he's not sure decriminalizing syringes at the state level would be the best thing for now.
“One of the things of having it criminalized is we are then able to identify people who are addicted to whatever they're using,” he said. “And it does give us an opportunity to identify them, put them in a program for services.
And he appreciates the efforts community leaders are putting into doing what they can to address the situation — one not seen before to this magnitude.
“I think everybody is trying to address the problem,” he said, "while still maintaining their professional responsibility.”