Court sides with needle exchanges

  • Tapestry Health’s needle exchange in Holyoke, one of only four Department of Public Health-funded needle exchange programs in western Massachusetts. Recorder Staff/Tom Relihan

Published: 6/16/2017 10:47:16 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Local public health experts are praising a Supreme Judicial Court decision on Wednesday to allow privately run hypodermic needle exchange programs to operate without state or local approval.

In its decision, the court allowed the nonprofit AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod to operate a free needle exchange in Barnstable after that town ordered the program shut down because it had not received local approval. As an opioid epidemic continues across the state, the ruling now paves the way for other private groups to open similar programs, which provide safe places for drug users to turn in dirty needles and receive clean ones, advocates said.

“We’re very excited about it,” said Cheryl Zoll, director of Tapestry Health, the Florence-based nonprofit that operates the only four Department of Public Health-funded needle exchange programs in western Massachusetts. “It’s such a wonderful strike in the best direction for public health.”

Liz Whynott, director of HIV health and prevention at Tapestry Health, said the ruling pertains to private organizations and individuals. However, organizations must still get local approval for programs receiving Department of Public Health funding — like Tapestry Health’s needle exchanges in Greenfield, Holyoke, Northampton and North Adams.

“This is such a win for public health, because syringe access has been shown to greatly decrease rates of HIV and hepatitis C,” Whynott said. Public health experts often tout the benefits of needle exchanges, which can reduce the harm of drug use to both personal and community health.

Under previous precedent, Whynott said decisions on needle exchange approval depended on elected officials, which could result in lengthy delays or the outright denial of local clinics. Tapestry Health itself ran into that issue when Holyoke city councilors sued over the 2012 opening of a Tapestry clinic, saying the organization had not received their approval.

“It makes it a very political process,” she said. “It kind of takes it out of the hands of public health experts and puts it in the hands of people who are tied politically.”

Now, however, private organizations can provide free, clean needles without restriction. Whynott said she hopes the ruling means that anyone who has access to a large number of active drug users can now be in a position to distribute clean needles.

Beyond the decreased risk of spreading viruses through intravenous drug use, Whynott said free needle exchanges also provide further benefits.

“Syringe access is an incredibly effective way to engage active drug users who aren’t engaged in other forms of treatment,” Whynott said.

By bringing people into needle exchanges, she said, public health workers have the possibility of providing them further services like referrals to HIV testing, overdose prevention advice and treatment.

Evidence-based approaches like needle exchanges are vitally important, Whynott said, given the public health crisis that opioid use poses in the state.

Overdose deaths have increased every year in the state since 2010. From 2014 to 2016, there was a 42 percent increase in overdose deaths to 1,933 confirmed cases, according to Department of Public Health figures. Reported rates of acute hepatitis C spiked in the state by 1,133 percent between 2011 and 2015, and the state ranked 19th in the number of HIV diagnoses in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think now is the time to figure it out,” Whynott said. “How are these programs going to get funded and how can we quickly expand syringe access?”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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