NBC4 Investigates abuse of local free syringes program

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — 1.2 million needles.  That’s how many free syringes the Safe Point Syringe Access Program said it handed out last year in Columbus. That averages to more than 100,000 syringes every month.

According to Equitas Health, one of the program’s objectives is to help prevent heroin addicts from sharing needles, and spreading deadly diseases like hepatitis C and HIV.

NBC 4 Investigator Tom Sussi shows you how some addicts are abusing the program to help feed their own addictions, and line their pockets. On the streets, the syringes can be used as currency.

Recently, an addict and street dealer drove 35 miles from Circleville to Columbus, to pick up free syringes at Equitas Health, a community health center in the Short North.

She said, “They give you 100 syringes a week. If you bring your card back you get 150 a week.”

She’s referring to an identification card Equitas Health provides its clients who participate in the Safe Point Syringe Access Program. The ID cards could qualify participants for up to 600 syringes each month, which averages out to 20 a day.

Sussi asked, “What are you going to do with 600 needles?”

She replied, “A lot of people use them, trade them or sell them.”

Asked Sussi, “How much do these needles go for on the streets?”

“Three dollars apiece or two for five,” she said.

It’s been two years since Columbus teamed up with Equitas Health, and launched the Safe Point program. By its own count, Equitas Health has handed out about 2.1 million syringes during the period.

Another addict told Sussi, “I’ve gone up there before just to get needles to sell.”

The 26-year-old man said the free syringes are traded for drugs, too. “You can get like a hit for a pack of ten needles.” The ex-con is talking about one hit of black tar Mexican heroin which he sells to support his own habit. He explained that one hit goes for $15.00 on the streets.

Columbus Police Officer Jason Pappas and Fraternal Order of Police President Local 9 said, “A lot of needles are being sold.”

He explained, “I’ve heard several complaints from officers particularly those where they’re going into these drug houses and finding hundreds of needles at a time.”

According to the Columbus Police spokesperson, boxes of syringes from the Safe Point Syringe Access Program turn up in dope houses.

Peggy Anderson is Chief Operating Officer for Equitas Health. “We’ve talked with the city, the city’s health department, and they were getting a lot of complaints and concerns, so we want to be good partners.”

Anderson said, “We go over with all of our folks the rules of the program. And sometimes they break the rules. We know that. And there has to be consequences for that. Sometimes it’s temporary removal. Sometimes it’s permanent.”

To better police the program from fraud and abuse, Equitas Health recently reduced the number of syringes people can get each month, from 600 to 300. “And some folks think that that’s too many. But we certainly have folks that we know who come in tell us we’re using 10 times a day,” said Anderson.

Equitas Health said donations from private individuals and foundations cover the cost of the syringes, which cost about a nickel each. A fraction of what some addicts are selling them for on the streets.

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