Needle Exchange Riles Claremont

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/15/2017 11:55:02 PM

Claremont — Some city councilors, including Mayor Charlene Lovett, are hoping to find a new location for a recently halted needle exchange program, but others are questioning whether it’s right for Claremont and could endanger schoolchildren.

A group of Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College students started the program, known as Project 439, this past summer to provide people who use intravenous drugs with clean needles, the overdose reversal drug naloxone and information about treatment. The program started by the Dartmouth medical students also collected dirty needles, but was forced to close in October, after city officials determined the program’s location at the Claremont Soup Kitchen on Central Street was in violation of state law.

During the City Council’s meeting on Wednesday, Lovett asked City Manager Ryan McNutt for a timeline of when a new location might be found for the students to resume the program, which began services this summer after a state law allowing such programs went into effect.

“I would hope that we are going to find a solution sooner rather than later,” Lovett said, in a video recording of the meeting. “I think it’s part of the formula for dealing with opioids in the community.”

Response from her fellow councilors was mixed, with some supporting Lovett’s request and others asking for a cautious approach to this program and others geared toward addressing substance use disorders, such as trainings for the administration of naloxone.

City Councilor Carolyn Towle agreed with Lovett and said she had heard from three residents on the issue.

“They’re finding needles on playgrounds and walking on the streets,” Towle said.

But, Councilor John Simonds, who also is the Sullivan County sheriff and a former Claremont police officer, said that it’s nothing new to find needles in public areas and the littering of drug paraphernalia is not unique to Claremont.

“The lack of a needle exchange program is not necessarily why people are finding needles on the street,” Simonds said. There “has been drug abuse for many, many years everywhere, not just Claremont and needles have been found for many, many years.”

Councilor Bruce Temple, who first brought the issue of the needle exchange’s location — which is about a block from New England Classical Academy — to the attention of other officials, said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to the program, but thought there should be “more public vetting of the location” in the future.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Temple expressed fears about children’s exposure to other drug-related programs. He said he had gotten a call from a constituent who was worried about a recently scheduled training in Claremont on the safe use of naloxone, which is often known by the brand name Narcan.

“Are we going to start seeing Narcan showing up in lunch buckets?” Temple said.

Under state law, needle exchanges cannot be located within a drug-free school zone, which is defined in state statute as being within 1,000 feet of a school or a property used by a school. This issue did not come up when the medical students, Louisa Chen and Nasim Azizgolshani, first presented their plan to city officials before they began providing services at the soup kitchen this summer.

Temple first raised the issue during a City Council meeting in early October, and after further investigation by McNutt and other city staff, city officials asked the students to shut down the program.

The medical students stopped providing services and the future of the needle exchange is now uncertain.

Other logical locations within the city, such as Valley Regional Hospital and Hope for New Hampshire Recovery’s Claremont Recovery Community Center, also are too close to school zones or school-related programs to comply with state law.

Valley Regional CEO Peter Wright is working with the New Hampshire Hospital Association to introduce legislation that would amend the state law to allow “healthcare facilities within a school zone, to offer a needle exchange program if the school superintendent will sign off,” he said in an email on Friday.

“There are no guarantees, of course, but we are cautiously optimistic,” Wright said. “It seems like common sense to allow healthcare facilities who are the best equipped to safely handle this, help move the (initiative) forward. This also puts control locally where most N.H. residents feel it should be.”

Chen and Azizgolshani did not respond to an email seeking comment by deadline on Friday, but said last month that they hoped to find a way to once again provide services to people in Claremont.

The students chose Claremont, in part, because medical students were already providing medical care to people at the soup kitchen, which is a satellite site for White River Junction-based Good Neighbor Health Clinic, a free service for the uninsured and underinsured.

The group provided 1,690 clean needles and collected 329 dirty ones between July 1 and Sept. 30, according to a report the students sent to the state. They also dispensed 26 naloxone kits and referred two people to treatment.

Since the program ceased operation, people have asked about it, said Cindy Stevens, the soup kitchen’s executive director.

From her perspective, the location “just seems like a good fit,” she said. “Our clients are comfortable coming here. We had the clinic space here. … Whatever we can to do to help clean up our community and help people in need.”

Stevens said she hasn’t been participating in conversations about the program’s future, and is leaving that up to the students and government officials.

Since October, Chen and Azizgolshani have been working with Dartmouth College attorneys to see whether they might propose a different interpretation of the law from that of the city officials.

As of late November, they were still in talks with the lawyers, Azizgolshani said in an email then.

McNutt said at the meeting on Wednesday that he did not have a timeline available for when a new location might be found for the program, but city officials are working on the issue.

“I hope that in January I will be able to provide the council with more specifics,” he said.

In the meantime, McNutt said, he is working on compiling a list of places where people can safely dispose of used needles, noting that the police department has a container available to the public.

“If somebody does want to responsibly dispose of a needle they will know where to put it,” he said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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