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After police raid, Idaho lawmaker introduces bill to repeal state needle exchange program

After a police raid this month on a Treasure Valley needle exchange organization, Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, introduced a bill to do away with the state’s needle exchange program entirely.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare offers funding for needle exchange programs and other harm reduction programs like opioid overdose medication and HIV testing. Needle exchange programs allow drug users to obtain clean needles and dispose of used ones, with the aim of reducing the spread of infectious diseases.

House Bill 617 would repeal the state’s program.

At a Wednesday legislative hearing, Vander Woude cited a recent raid of the Idaho Harm Reduction Project, an organization that offers needle exchange services, HIV testing and naloxone — an overdose reversal medication — at offices in Boise and Caldwell.

Police seized “packaged” drug paraphernalia related to methamphetamine, opioids and crack cocaine and confiscated employee cellphones and other belongings at the organization’s offices earlier this month, according to previous Idaho Statesman reporting. The organization has since shuttered and started a fundraiser for employees.

Idaho’s needle exchange program dates from 2019, and Health and Welfare began contracting with the Harm Reduction Project in 2020. State health officials since the raid have halted payments to needle exchange providers and launched an investigation at the direction of Gov. Brad Little.

In a statement on its website, the Harm Reduction Project said it has always followed Idaho law and “done our public health work in the full light of day — with the full knowledge of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare — and look forward to this issue being resolved.” The organization did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

There have been no arrests and the investigation remains ongoing, Boise police spokesperson Haley Williams told the Statesman by email.

Needle exchanges’ benefits questioned

Vander Woude referenced the recent raid when he introduced the bill Wednesday and told the Statesman in an interview that he fears needle exchange programs do not reduce drug use. He said he has had concerns about the program since last year, but said the recent raid brought those to the “forefront” of his mind.

“I’m afraid sometimes it’s more enabling than it is trying to get people off (of drugs),” he said. “There’s got to be something better than this,” he added, and suggested that perhaps needle exchange programs could be tied to behavioral health programs.

The National Institutes of Health maintain that needle exchange programs are effective at reducing harm. Decades of research concluded that the programs are “safe, effective, and cost-saving tools” to prevent HIV and high-risk injection, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“Safer syringe programs protect people by providing safe disposal of used syringes, which protects the public safety workforce and community members from needle-stick injury,” according to Health and Welfare’s website.

Rep. Nate Roberts, D-Pocatello, voted against introducing Vander Woude’s bill and debated the merits of needle exchange programs with the lawmaker after the hearing. He said that drug users who use exchanges are reaching out for help and can get access to treatment programs at exchange centers, and that abolishing such programs could push addicts further away from the resources they need.

“I think that that was the idea behind the needle exchange program, is not to stigmatize those individuals that may be trying to reach out for some form of help,” he said. He added that the benefits of such programs can be hard to measure, and that they improve public health by reducing the spread of disease.

Director absent from committee meeting

Rep. Marjorie Wilson, D-Boise, who has been a substitute lawmaker for Rep. Sue Chew this year while Chew battles pancreatic cancer, is the executive director of the Harm Reduction Project.

She serves on the House Health and Welfare Committee where Vander Woude introduced his bill Wednesday but was not present at the hearing. A secondary substitute took her place.

Wilson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.