FARGO - Only one member of the public showed up to Fargo Cass Public Health's public meeting on the proposed downtown needle exchange Friday, Feb. 2, but some city leaders say they're hearing complaints.
"I've already heard concerns from people who are not in favor of this," City Commissioner Tony Gehrig said. To help sell the idea, he said public health officials should produce data that shows how exchanges work and that they don't promote drug use.
Though dirty syringes can be exchanged for clean ones at the new facility at 510 5th St. N., that's a very small part of proposed services, according to John Baird, the county health officer and coroner. While syringes are what may bring in drug users, they'll also find experts there who can share with them the risk of drug use, test them for diseases and help them find treatment.
Intravenous drug use does appear to be a serious problem in Fargo-Moorhead, Baird told an audience of public health officials, substance abuse experts, a police officer and several county prosecutors.
Over the past five years, 131 people in Cass County have died of opioid-related causes, something Baird said he's well-acquainted with as coroner. The number of deaths peaked at 31 in 2016 but was down to 17 in 2017, which he said he thinks is because of the aggressive community response.
The number of new hepatitis C infections, which can be caused by sharing needles, has continued to climb each year. There have been 825 cases in the last five years, with the highest number, 236, in 2017.
Besides the devastating effect that opioid addiction has on families of drug users, Baird said, it also has an impact on society. For example, he said, treatment for hepatitis C can cost more than $100,000.
"That falls on all of us because our insurance payments or our medical assistance, or whatever people might have for public care - it's going to cost our community in some way," he said.
Baird said the cost of the needle exchange program is $130,000, including grants from the state and nonprofit groups. Some of the state funding will be used to show other communities how they can set up their own programs, he said.
Responding to Gehrig's concern, Baird said needle exchanges have been around since the 1980s, and there is a lot of research that shows they work to reduce harm.
Jeremy Kelly, a harm-reduction expert for the city who started the area's only needle exchange in Moorhead three years ago, said his research shows only positive results from exchanges. He said he knows drug users in western North Dakota are willing to pay $10 for used syringes, which shows they'll do what it takes to get their fix.
The city can buy clean syringes for 10 cents a piece, he said, potentially saving hundreds of thousands in costs to the community in the long run.
The City Commission is scheduled to vote to authorize the needle exchange at its Feb. 12 meeting.