The Hippo


May 27, 2020








Clean syringes — and info
How Nashua’s program is working three months in


By Ryan Lessard
Even though needle exchanges have been legal in New Hampshire since June 16, 2017, southern New Hampshire didn’t have one up and running until Feb. 1. That’s when the Nashua area needle exchange officially kicked off, and so far it’s provided syringe services to about 120 clients, and five people from the program have entered treatment.
How it works
Of the roughly 120 people who are taking the clean needles made available for the program, about half are repeat customers.
“Which is what we want,” said Wendy LeBlanc, vice president of the Southern New Hampshire HIV/AIDS Task Force and the person who oversees the Nashua area needle exchange.
The purpose of the program is to make sure people who are injecting drugs are doing so with clean needles and properly disposing of used needles. The idea is to prevent the spread of harmful infections through re-used, contaminated syringes.
The program in Nashua is fairly small so far. Aside from her own office at 77 Northeastern Boulevard, which LeBlanc said is filled with boxes of clean syringes and other material, there is no physical location for the exchange. Mostly, exchanges are handled out in the community at several ad hoc rendezvous points.
It’s staffed by public health workers employed by the Nashua Public Health Department and peer coaches who work with the Revive Recovery Center. Between the two organizations, there are fewer than 10 volunteers in the program. Drug users can call the Google phone number 978-743-9636, which will connect them to one of the volunteers during normal business hours.
For the public health workers, it’s a natural add-on to their existing responsibilities, which involve outreach and education to prevent the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. LeBlanc said staff members go as teams to places where drug users congregate and set up meetings with individuals (at locations that are more than 1,000 feet away from a school zone, as required by law). 
Staff members provide printed educational material, clean needles and sharps containers for the people to discard the used needles. When they meet again, the sharps container filled with used needles is returned, and staff members dispose of the sharps containers at one of the two area hospitals. LeBlanc said the city is working on obtaining the proper licensing so the public health department can dispose of the needles themselves.
LeBlanc said they don’t use the term “needle exchange” to describe the program, usually.
“We call it a syringe program or syringe services,” LeBlanc said.
That’s because it encompasses a broader array of services. Aside from clean needles, they also provide naloxone kits to use in case of overdose, condoms, HIV and Hep C testing and more.
One of the biggest things they provide is education. Since the law is so new, there are still many who don’t realize they can return used needles without fear of being arrested and charged for possession.
“It’s also a culture shift that we have to educate people who inject drugs that having a used needle is no longer a crime,” LeBlanc said. “So once you use it and you’re done with it, you don’t have to throw it on the street to get it out of your possession.”
While the immediate goal is to prevent the spread of serious infections, LeBlanc hopes the program will establish a foundation of trust so it may seen as a viable resource to the drug users when they are ready to seek treatment.
The future
Eventually, LeBlanc hopes to expand the program to neighboring communities in the greater Nashua area and perhaps eventually create a brick and mortar center for the exchange. She also hopes they can use a mobile van once a week to create a pop-up exchange at spots within the community.
The program was funded by two $15,000 yearly grants from the AIDS United Syringe Access Fund and $5,000 from Orasure, an HIV testing company. Orasure also provided a number of test kits. The state is providing naloxone kits and condoms.
LeBlanc said the New Hampshire Harm Reduction Coalition was instrumental in setting up the exchange with training and technical support. The coalition is operating the state’s only other needle exchange in the Seacoast area.
Ultimately, LeBlanc hopes that some of the controversy around the program will subside as people learn more about how it works.
“We know there are community members that look at this as enabling somebody or whatever, but there’s so much research that disproves that. This is a harm reduction program, a public health intervention,” LeBlanc said. “Of course we would prefer that nobody was injecting drugs but that’s not the reality. The reality is people are doing this and we want to do what we can to make that happen more safely to reduce infections in our community and also to have less contaminated needles on the street.” 

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