County wants Grand Forks to stop providing syringes to drug users

Five North Dakota cities currently provide drug addicts and users free syringes with no questions asked over their usage of illegal substances — Fargo, Grand Forks, Mandan, Minot and Valley City. But Grand Forks won’t be on that list much longer, if the county board gets its way.

The Grand Forks County commissioners have sent a message that the Herald notes urges city officials to drop the four-year old Syringe Service Program.

County commissioners voted by a slim margin to recommend the city of Grand Forks discontinue its needle exchange program after a commissioner rallied against the program.

The Grand Forks County Commission voted 3-2 Tuesday, Jan. 16 to send a letter asking the city to discontinue its syringe service program after Commissioner Mark Rustad asked for the issue to be brought before the commission.

“To me, this is nothing but propagating, and allowing for, and in some cases even condoning intravenous drug use,” Rustad said.

Services listed on the city’s website include:

Syringe exchange and disposal

Supplies including sharps containers, cookers, sterile water, and filters

Hepatitis C and HIV testing and referrals

Naloxone and naloxone training

Safer sex supplies including condoms, dental dams, and lube

City health officials insist the controversial needle exchange program does not increase illicit drug use, while reducing the transmission of Hepatitis C and HIV via dirty syringes. A federal grant covers most costs, while private donations pay for syringes.

[City opioid response coordinator Michael] Dulitz pointed to declines in rates of hepatitis C in Grand Forks County since the syringe service program began in 2019 (Case rates peaked in 2018 and have declined steadily since then) as well as similar declines in rates of opioid overdoses and fatalities reported by Altru Health System and Grand Forks’ first responders.

Dulitz said the public health department neither condones nor ignores the risks associated with drug use, but seeks to make it safer for people who are going to use either way.

“I recognize at face value that something like a needle exchange program doesn’t jibe with common sense,” Dulitz said. “But when you look closer at harm reduction, the opportunity for us to engage with people and bring about change, we have made a lot of progress.”

States and cities throughout the country offer the needle exchange program implemented by Congress in response to the opioid crisis. But the county commissioner leading the effort against it in Grand Forks remains unconvinced of the program’s premise and effectiveness locally.

Rustad said the syringes and sterilization equipment distributed to patients as “a how-to kit” for drug use and believes the program contributes to dangerous public litter.

Hagen seconded his concern about the number of needles being distributed. Dulitz told the Herald the program collected 80.8% of the sharps it gave out, and gave a similar figure to commissioners.

Rustad also said the absence of local data on the matter — which Moeller and Dulitz separately pointed out was effectively impossible to obtain due to confidentiality rules and the small patient population — discredited the value of the program.

“It’s confidential so to speak, so there’s no data to support that it’s effective,” Rustad said.

Whether the county board’s letter to Grand Forks officials makes much of a difference remains to be seen. Grand Forks city councilors recently voted 4 to 3 to continue offering the needle exchange program.