A syringe might not be the first thing you'd expect to see growing from a tree. It's probably not even the last. But in a wooded area in Greenville, South Carolina, a syringe does indeed seem to be growing from a tree.
The Sprouting of the Syringe
Naloxone (aka Narcan) saves lives. In fact, the opioid overdose-reversing drug is becoming almost as ubiquitous as the opioids themselves. But clean needles also save lives. They help stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases too. Unfortunately, very few communities allow addicts access to unused syringes. Many even still criminalize the mere possession of a syringe.
Marc Burrows is among those aiming to reverse that situation.
Burrows runs Challenges Inc, a Harm Reduction Service in Greenville, South Carolina. His all-volunteer organization has been providing clean needles and Narcan to drug users for about a year now. Sometimes they come to the mobile distribution unit. Sometimes the mobile distribution unit comes to them. And the service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Many times Burrows has been summoned to a secluded wooded area near a gas station and a motel off Greenville's South Pleasantburg Drive. There he's trudged down well-worn paths into a shady clearing and exchanged a syringe or dropped off a dose of Narcan. But some addicts just don't want to wait for a clean needle. And by the time the call comes for naloxone, it's often too late.
So Burrows put together overdose prevention kits and started nailing 'em to the surrounding pine trees. The spots aren't exactly out in the open. But they are conspicuous enough to be useful. And it gives addicts a chance to readily access potentially life-saving material. It also provides Burrows with a little piece of mind.
"It almost feels like you just reversed, I don’t want to say fate, but like, someone should have been dead," Burrows told the Greenville News. "That could be someone’s child or son or daughter or husband or wife. And because they had this drug and they were willing to use it, they can now live to see another day."
In other words, they lived because of a syringe and vial of naloxone hanging from a tree.
The Laws of the Land
Not everyone is happy with such a rugged method of getting clean needles and naloxone to drug users. Some public health officials object to the practice. So do some drug abuse services. They claim handling syringes and leaving them in public could be viewed as illegal possession or distribution of drug paraphernalia.
According to the Law Atlas Project's Policy Surveillance Program, only seven states explicitly exclude syringes from drug paraphernalia possession laws. Another nine states (plus the District of Columbia) have recently removed references to syringes from their laws. South Carolina is one of the recent converts, which is how Challenges Inc is able to lawfully operate. But that still leaves 33 other states where a drug user can go to jail simply for possessing a syringe.
Addicts fare a little better when it comes to obtaining clean needles. But not by much. Eleven states currently lack a sterile syringe exchange program to begin with. And of the 39 that do have needle exchanges, nine have only one program to cover the entire state. That's far too few for far too many. Especially considering shared or reused syringes are more likely to increase the spread of HIV/AIDs and other infectious blood-borne diseases.
Furthermore, Chooper's Guide says ten states don't even have naloxone laws. And while 40 states (and DC) have at least enacted Good Samaritan Laws to cover those administering naloxone, many states still require a prescription before the drug can be obtained by the general public. States need to do better. Especially considering how many lives have already been saved by the overdose-reversing drug.
In Praise of Harm Reduction Services
Recovery Boot Camp would like to applaud Challenges Inc and the other Harm Reduction Services organizations across the country. We'd also like to remind everyone that clean syringes don't encourage drug abuse. Neither does Narcan. They both simply reduce the risk of infection and death. They also often serve as a bridge between substance abuse and addiction treatment. And considering the extent of the opioid epidemic, addicts need all the bridges they can get.