Tapestry’s needle exchange program marks 25 years in Northampton

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  • Ian Hayes, a counselor at Tapestry Health, goes over some of the safer injection items that the agency’s syringe service program can offer injection drug users, like this portable sharps container. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ian Hayes, a harm reduction counselor at Tapestry Health, goes over some of the safer injection items that the agency’s syringe service program can offer injection drug users, like this bleach kit. Photographed at Tapestry’s harm reduction site on Center Street in Northampton on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • On this board at the Tapestry Health harm reduction site in Northampton clients share first-hand appraisals of, and cautions on, street drugs in current use, with an eye toward lowering the risk of an overdose. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This Narcan (naloxone HCL) nasal spray opioid overdose reversal kit is available at the Tapestry Health harm reduction site on Center Street in Northampton. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. This month, Tapestry marks the 25th anniversary of its sterile syringe access and safe disposal program in western Massachusetts. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • These are some of the safer injection materials available to injection drug users through the syringe service program at the Tapestry Health harm reduction site on Center Street in Northampton. Photographed on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. This month, Tapestry marks the 25th anniversary of its sterile syringe access and safe disposal program in western Massachusetts. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 12/28/2020 8:03:50 PM

NORTHAMPTON — It has been 25 years since community-based health care nonprofit Tapestry opened its Northampton syringe access program, which at the time was the first west of Boston. Now, two and a half decades later, Tapestry has expanded to bring harm reduction programs to cities across the Pioneer Valley.

In 1995, Massachusetts allowed for a pilot needle exchange program, according to Liz Whynott, director of Tapestry’s syringe access programs. Local approval was needed from each municipality to open a needle exchange, which at the time created barriers for them.

“The Northampton one was the only successful aboveground needle exchange to open west of Boston,” Whynott said. “Between 1994 and 1996 there were four that opened — Northampton, Boston, Cambridge and Provincetown. No other city in Massachusetts successfully opened one because it was so political and because of the extreme amount of stigma that existed against people who used drugs.”

Whynott said one of the main reasons why the Northampton program opened was the leadership of former Mayor Mary Ford.

“That kind of paved the way for a lot of harm reduction in western Mass.,” she said. “The program has always worked to reduce the stigma and it was really the only program that focused on people who used drugs who weren’t ready to go into drug treatment. Besides that, the only things that were available were detox. There was the question of what kinds of services are available to keep people alive and as healthy as possible when they’re using drugs? And needle exchange was the answer.”

Despite, the Northampton needle exchange program opening in the mid-1990s, it would take another 17 years until another harm-reduction needle exchange program opened in the region. In 2012, Tapestry started a needle exchange program in Holyoke.

“After that, there was some really amazing advocacy to change the approval process for needle exchanges, and maybe about five years ago, the language changed in the approval process, which defined local approval through the board of health,” she said.

Now, there are more than 30 needle exchange programs open throughout the state, with local programs also in cities such as Springfield, Chicopee and Greenfield.

Harm reduction

Besides the increase in needle exchange programs, harm reduction work also has seen its fair share of changes throughout the years.

Whynott, who has been serving as the needle exchange program director in western Massachusetts for the past five years, said up until the mid-2000s, people using needles could only obtain them through a prescription from their doctor.

“For people who injected drugs, you could get arrested for having one,” she noted.

Transmission of HIV and AIDS became an epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s partially due to lack of clean needles for drug users, Whynott said. Shared needles were a main spreader for the virus, but after the introduction of needle exchange programs, rates of HIV dropped about 90%.

When former Gov. Deval Patrick declared a public health crisis due to opioids in March 2014, it marked a turning point for harm-reduction programs, Whynott said.

“That was really the first time that we as workers at the needle exchange and we as harm-reduction experts, this was the first time that we were invited to the table to be part of the conversation and to be included in the thinking of this.

“I think for a long time, it was just jail or detox. Those were the only two things for people using heroin. And it’s always been clear. But more people began to understand that jail and detox are problematic,” she said.

The state also started a Narcan pilot program in 2007, which allowed Tapestry to give out the life-saving nasal spray for those at risk of a potential drug overdose.

“Tapestry was able to train its employees to train others to use Narcan and then give it,” Whynott said. “That’s when we were able to start giving out Narcan above ground to people who inject drugs, their friends and family members who were much more likely to witness an overdose compared to a first responder.”

At its Northampton location at 16 Center St., Tapestry provides resources such as drug use counseling, Narcan access and training, referrals to drug treatment programs and medical care, new syringe pickups for free, used syringe disposal, safer injection education, safer sex supplies, STD, HIV and hepatitis C testing, as well as food assistance and housing referrals.

Whynott said reaching 25 years at the location is a milestone and that while stigma around harm reduction for drug users still exists, it’s less prevalent than it was 20 years ago.

“People were very anti-needle exchange,” she said. “I think Tapestry was really courageous in opening and operating this very political program. Over the 25 years, the leadership has been very successful and at the same time it’s stuck to its mission, which is needing to meet people where they’re at, not where we want them to be.

“The people who come into our program, we’re not the ultimate deciders for them,” she added. “They have the ability to make healthy decisions for themselves. It’s really about treating people with compassion and kindness and providing them with evidence-based intervention.”




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