Fear of the unknown

A public vetting in a large forum is the key to successful harm-reduction programs

In the spring, this newspaper published a cover story about the Northern Valley Harm Reduction Coalition (NVHRC), a local volunteer group working to address Butte County’s alarming rate of drug-induced deaths—the 13th highest in the state. As the story noted (see “A vital exchange,” March 7), the county Public Health Department has focused on the overprescription of opioid painkillers. However, illicit drug users, many of them former pain patients who have turned to heroin for relief, often fall through the cracks.

In response, the NVHRC launched efforts to educate the public about naloxone—brand name Narcan. The drug helps reverse the potentially fatal effects of opioids. It’s carried by Chico police officers and other first responders, thanks to Public Health via state funding.

NVHRC has been the community’s go-to resource for education about the signs of overdose and how to administer Narcan. Through grants, it has distributed this life-saving medicine for free. At the same time, the group started working on another harm-reduction program—a syringe exchange.

Last fall, Public Health officials were scheduled to discuss syringe exchanges at the mid-November meeting of Chico’s Local Government Committee. Then the Camp Fire struck and the presentation was pushed back (to Wednesday, Aug. 7, after this newspaper’s deadline). Given the need, NVHRC soldiered ahead with its plans, which await state authorization.

Studies show syringe exchanges are effective in reducing HIV and hepatitis C transmission and promoting entry into drug treatment programs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such programs do not increase drug use or crime.

The rub: Citizens have only a vague idea about its implementation locally and have valid questions and concerns. This includes pushback from Chico’s police chief, who issued a press release to that affect this week. What we’d like to see is a presentation by NVHRC, along with local and state Public Health experts, in a larger and more appropriate forum, such as the City Council chambers. Our advice to counter resistance: transparency and education.