WNCAP’s Michael Harney is on a mission, and this is an issue near and dear to us. According to North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, four people die every day in the state from an opioid overdose.
At last week’s opioid crisis roundtable with Attorney General Stein, Michael Harney brought over twenty years of experience to the table. Blue Ridge Public Radio covered the story. Check out some excerpts below:
In addition to those dying of overdoses, new cases of hepatitis B and C are rising in part due to the sharing of needles for drugs. That’s a problem one man at the meeting knew well. Michael Harney is a prevention educator at the Western North Carolina Aids Project and was the cofounder of the Needle Exchange Program of Asheville.
“There was a little bit of work in the 1991, 92 time period. But we were the first openly active needle exchange program in the state of North Carolina.”
Those exchanges were only legalized last year. Providing clean needles to drug users comes with its share of controversy, but it may be a way to slow the spread of blood borne disease, and the demand is certainly there. Harney says they can’t even keep up.
“We do run out of supplies monthly. We have for the last year and a half or so, with the demand that seems to be ever-increasing. We have gone through about 60,000 needles a month on average, and running out after providing that many shows that there’s an increased need, a further demand that’s not being met.”
Harney says pharmacies can sell needles, but they often won’t do so without a prescription, which means more strain on groups like his, the only needle exchange program in this part of the state.
“So sometimes people can’t access needles and that’s why they’re coming from Andrews and Murphy and up in Yancey County and down in, you know, from Charlotte and coming from McDowell County.”
And like the Attorney General, Harney says a big part of solving the problem is a change in focus from incarceration to treatment, and simply changing the way we think about drug users.
“They’re human beings and they come in with such grace and gratitude to us. They thank us wholeheartedly. ‘Thank you so much for being here. If you weren’t here I don’t know what I would do. I might have gotten HIV or Hepatitis C or another blood-borne infection. Thank you all so much!’”
‘Thank you so much’ is something those in the room hope to be able to say to lawmakers if they pass bills like the STOP Act, first steps in battling what’s becoming a growing, complex and ever-challenging problem, touching the lives of more and more North Carolinians.