Needle Exchange

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The majority floor leader of the Kentucky Senate has filed a bill that would limit needle exchange programs such as the one operated by Metro Louisville's Department of Health and Wellness.

Sen. Damon Thayer's bill, SB 69, would limit needle exchanges to a one-for-one swap.

"I would love to get rid of the needle exchange altogether," Thayer said. "But I don't think I could get that passed."

State lawmakers gave communities the option of starting needle exchange programs in 2015 as part of an anti-heroin bill.

Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown, said he filed his bill because the programs have gone further than the law intended.

"It would define a needle exchange as a one-for-one exchange, and that was the original intent of the legislation," Thayer said.

Metro Health Director Dr. Sarah Moyer said the bill would have a "huge impact" on Louisville's program.

She said sharing needles promotes the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C, and requiring a one-for-one swap would defeat the purpose.

"If you come in, and you're sharing needles, and we give you one back for the one you give me, you're still sharing the same amount as you were before," she said.

The health department said the numbers back up the program's impact:

  • More than 17,000 people have participated since the program began in 2015.
  • 684 have been referred for drug treatment
  • 27 have been referred for HIV treatment
  • 611 have been referred for hepatitis C treatment
  • 1,500 have been tested for HIV
  • 1,500 have been tested for hepatitis C

"It's been huge for Louisville," Moyer said. "We've been able to stop the spread of HIV and slow the spread of hepatitis C."

Moyer said since counselors also give drug users containers to properly dispose of the needles, more than 2 million have been taken off the streets.

"I understand, and I respect the public health argument," Thayer said. "I just am philosophically opposed to taxpayers paying for a needle for someone to do an act that is illegal."

Moyer contends the program actually saves taxpayer dollars.

"Because needles aren't that expensive, but diseases like HIV and hepatitis C are really expensive to treat," she said.

But Thayer said the issue goes beyond dollars and cents. For him, it is about a policy that he believes fuels illegal drug use.

"I just have a deep-seeded philosophical opposition to the public paying for these needles," Thayer said.

Moyer said as the exchange program has matured, the needle exchange ratio has come down. When it began, the ratio was 7-to-1. It is now 1.4-to-1.

But Moyer added that need, not law, should determine that ratio.

Thayer acknowledged opposition to his bill could be strong, even among lawmakers in his own party.

"I don't know if I can get it passed or not, but I'm certainly going to give it my best shot," he said.

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I cover a range of stories for WDRB, but really enjoy tracking what's going on at our State Capitol. I grew up on military bases all over the world, but am a Kentuckian at heart. I'm an EKU alum, and have lived in Louisville for 30 years.