LONGVIEW, Wash. — Jeff Wilson has picked up used hypodermic needles throughout Cowlitz County and posted his findings online for two years. He’s tired of it and is about to quit — partly, he says, because government is helping fuel the problem.
“This is not fun for me,” he said, adding that he’s ashamed for the community. “Do you think I want to go online and post a picture of where my daughter grew up? No.”
Wilson, a Port of Longview commissioner, is worried about the danger that discarded needles pose to the public. He puts much of the blame on Cowlitz County’s needle exchange program. It’s a bold claim in that the county says it tries to collect a used needle for every one given out. On the other hand, it’s bolstered by the sheer numbers involved: The county estimates it gave out nearly 900,000 syringes last year.
Around twice a week, Wilson visits one of his “hot spots” in a neon shirt, Carhartt pants and steel-toed boots, armed with a plastic picker-upper machine, ready to go needle hunting. Some of the most common places he finds them are the county fairgrounds, the farmer’s market site and under bridges. He’s once found a discarded syringe stuck in a port-a-potty toilet paper dispenser.
His personal record for needles found in one day is 65. On a different outing, Wilson spotted six needles in six minutes.
Wilson started his crusade after noticing more and more needles discarded throughout the county. His goal was to increase awareness of the problem and start conversations. He even started posting on social media a couple months ago to spread the word.
“I knew it would be sensitive, and I’m not here to scare people or create any feelings of fear,” Wilson said. “We need to create feelings of understanding, and we need to find out where the problem is. Once we do that, it will trace us back to our local governments. Then we demand our voice be heard.”
However, after a couple years and hundreds of needles, Wilson is frustrated and is calling it quits. He wants the public to have a say in the whether the county should continue the 18-year-old needle exchange program. He said that even if Cowlitz County citizens vote to keep it, he’d accept that, as long as there is a forum for discussion.
“I almost have to be done, because there’s no change coming,” he said. “Obviously, I wasn’t able to keep up with them. Until our local government decides to represent us and take action, I was never going to keep up. Who am I kidding here?”
The needle exchange, launched in January 2000, provides clean syringes and other items used to inject drugs to help prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases among drug addicts, such as HIV and hepatitis. Twelve other counties, including Clark, King and Grays Harbor, as well as the cities of Tacoma and Spokane, run needle exchange programs, according to the Washington State Department of Health.
The program tries to exchange needles on a one-for-one basis, but sometimes, if a client hands in a large amount of used needles, the county employee will estimate, according to workers in the program.
According to a 2016 county report, the program had 864 clients exchange needles during an estimated 3,795 visits, a jump from 518 clients and 2,593 visits in 2010. This includes 311 new clients in 2016. There were slightly fewer than 890,000 needles exchanged in 2016 alone. That’s a staggering number: nine for every person in Cowlitz County, or nearly five a day for 500 people.
However, the county added a disclaimer to the report. A compromising of the database erased multiple records, so county numbers are likely underestimated. No explanation was available Friday.
Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber said the commissioners are considering revamping or doing away with the program. Weber said a new report from the county health department that should update the number of needles distributed is coming at the end of June. It should assess the program’s costs and effect on HIV rates.
Commissioner Arne Mortensen is strongly against the needle exchange program. In his blog, the commissioner wrote that he believes the exchange should be stopped for one year, due to littered needles and taxpayer cost.
“I am appalled that the government feels it has the prerogative to give out free anything,” he wrote.
However, needle exchange advocates say the county program has helped control the spread of infectious disease.
“It’s the best practice that we have,” said Jeanne Snow, a nurse manager for the Cowlitz County Health and Human Services Department. “There’s no exact cure for some of these diseases, so it’s one of the only tools that we have to prevent infectious diseases.”
Betsy Sully, who handed out syringes as a volunteer for the exchange for three years earlier this decade, agreed with Snow that the program substantially decreased infectious diseases. She also said needle littering would be worse without the exchange.
“People would often bring in extra needles, just to recycle them,” she said. “We actually took in a higher number of syringes than we were giving out. I do understand that people are picking them up, but I think that programs like this reduce the amount of needles in the community, because people aren’t criminally responsible for turning them in.”
The needle exchange also tries to encourage users to get into treatment, Snow said. Referrals for drug treatment were given out at 43 percent of the visits to the exchange, according to Cowlitz County Health and Human Services. It’s not known how many addicts actually sought treatment as a result of those contacts.
Cowlitz County Health and Human Service representatives Chris DesRosier and Carole Harrison were unavailable for comment.
Wilson said he went undercover to the needle exchange in February, and the program gave him a bag of 10 new needles in exchange for one used syringe. He even sent in a 14-year-old girl, and the exchange staff supplied her with needles and asked no questions, according to Wilson.
The port commissioner is confident that many of the needles he finds discarded around the community are from the exchange. His evidence? Littered needle bags — the same bags the program gives out needles in — and other clean-use tools given out by the program.
Wilson said the county should not enable drug users; it should expand treatment options.
“To enable, I can understand that for a very, very short term, but the end result is it doesn’t fix anything,” Wilson said. “It would be like telling your citizens that the speed limit is 20 mph in a school zone, but come by the government today, and we’ll give you an engine that will make you go faster through the school zone.”
Wilson said he’s concerned about drug users, but he’s also fears for the non-users who are accidentally poked by discarded needles. Although HIV doesn’t survive for long outside of a body, getting pricked still complicates one’s life, according to Wilson.
“If you get stuck by this, you’re the one who has to go the hospital and wait for weeks to get your report back,” he said, holding a used needle. “Meanwhile, you can’t have sex. You can’t do a number of things until he/she gets clean. How dare drug pollution create such a hazard to people that are completely innocent victims.”
Wilson said that he finds needles with liquid still in them about 10 percent of the time.
“Is it rainwater? Is it drain cleaner? Is it heroin? Do you want somebody to find out?”
In his view, county officials need to be more open about the needle program and focus on solutions to drug abuse.
“That program either needs to be repaired, or it needs to be shut down,” he said.
He opposes a methadone clinic that is proposed for Kelso, saying methadone still “keeps people hooked.” If Wilson had his way, the county would have more detox centers.
“The people are what’s important, not the drug. The people matter,” Wilson said. “Vulnerable or not, all people are important, and we’ve got to get the drug out of the people and get the person back. There is no friendly drug.”
Commissioner Weber is still waiting on the upcoming June report to make a decision on the program, but he is concerned that infection rates may rise among drug users if the syringe exchange ends.
“One of the worries that I have if that is we don’t have this program, the ER fills up with addicts that have hepatitis and other infectious diseases, which means the rest of us can’t get in,” he said.
According to a report from the Washington State Department of Health, Cowlitz County’s number of newly diagnosed HIV cases has fluctuated within the past seven years, reaching as high as five in 2010 and 2012, and as low as one in 2012 and 2015. The average was three per year in that time span. There were two new HIV cases in 2016, according to Cowlitz County Health and Human Services.
Wilson doesn’t have a completely gloomy outlook on Cowlitz County’s drug struggles, however.
He said he’s a big believer in the drug court system, and says Longview and Kelso high school students should have mandatory field trips to visit hearings.
“Students are incredibly bright people,” the Longview resident said. “They are sponges of intelligence. Through this observation and listening, they’re going to be able to see what they don’t want to grow up and emulate. They’re going to be able to make a choice and say, ‘I don’t want to be like that. Jail is not fun. It is not fun to get green coveralls on and be drug around in front of your friends on a Thursday afternoon at drug court.’ “
The final spot Wilson searched before his needle-hunting retirement was underneath the Cowlitz Way Bridge which is near Catlin Elementary. He wasn’t surprised by the large number of needles he found, but he was dismayed nonetheless.
“There are kids right in that playground down the street as we speak. How would you feel if one of them was yours?”
Although Wilson might be done picking up needles, he still plans on informing people of the county’s issues with “drug pollution,” as he calls it.
“Here’s how you shut me up: get rid of the needles,” Wilson said. “If I can’t find any needles, then I’ll shut up.”
Information from: The Daily News, http://www.tdn.com