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Health News Florida

Duval County Could Launch A Needle Exchange Program For Drug Users

A Jacksonville City Council member says he will introduce legislation to authorize a program for drug users to safely exchange used needles for new ones at no cost.

Duval could be the next Florida county to launch a safe syringe exchange in response to a 2019 state law that authorized counties to implement such harm-reduction programs as long as they’re not funded with tax dollars.

During an informational meeting Wednesday, Jacksonville City Council member Michael Boylan said he plans to introduce legislation to authorize a program for intravenous drug users to safely exchange used needles for new ones at no cost.

“The opportunity this program would have is serving as a gateway for people who are using illicit drugs, hopefully a stepping off point for them toward recovery,” Boylan said.

The University of Miami launched a pilot needle exchange program in 2016. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Infectious Disease Elimination Act three years later, allowing counties to replicate Miami-Dade’s program, which is funded through grants and private donations.

David Forrest is the program director of Miami's safe syringe project. He said the program has helped put social workers in regular contact with drug users to distribute resources like Narcan, a medication that can prevent overdose deaths.

“Of the increasing overdose deaths we’ve been seeing in Florida due to opioid use, the first decrease in the whole state was in Miami-Dade County about a year after we started giving out the Narcan,” Forrest said.

The primary goal of syringe exchange programs is to prevent the spread of infections through shared needles, according to the 2019 state law. Jacksonville mother Jennifer Hornack has two children who have had substance use disorder and hepatitis C, and her son died of an overdose last year. She told council members Wednesday she believes the cost of treatment for hepatitis C infections ends up being much higher than the cost of safe needle exchanges.

“If you put the money in on the front end with all these types of services, you will save so much on the back end,” Hornack said. “I’ve had to learn about harm reduction the hard way by losing a child.”

Jacksonville’s drug overdose deaths have remained on par in 2021 with last year’s spike, with more than 270 deaths so far this year.

Jacksonville’s general counsel said the city can’t use any of the $1.6 billion coming to the state from recent opioid settlements to fund the syringe exchange. But taxpayer and settlement dollars could be used to fund other resources offered at exchange locations, like Narcan and substance use disorder treatment.

Boylan has not yet formally introduced legislation to launch the program.

Contact Claire Heddles at cheddles@wjct.org, (904) 250 - 0926, or on Twitter at @claireheddles.