The county’s first community meeting on a proposed syringe service program — that would allow drug users to dispose of used needles in exchange for a clean one — left the residents of Thurmont with a lot to consider.
The Behavioral Health Services division of the Frederick County Health Department was awarded nearly $23,000 in grant funding from the Maryland Department of Health last year to launch a feasibility study for a syringe service program — commonly called needle exchange. Jessica Ellis, the program’s coordinator, laid out what the program could look like in Frederick County and what places with syringe services — such as the city of Baltimore — have seen as a result.
An increase in people seeking drug treatment, a reduction in crime, and a decrease in new diagnoses of HIV and hepatitis C have all been linked to needle exchange programs, Ellis said. The programs have not been linked to new drug use.
“It does not mean acceptance. It does not mean it’s OK to keep using drugs,” said Commissioner Martin Burns, who has spearheaded a community response to opioid and heroin use in town.
What it could mean is a way to access drug users and introduce them to resources. Ellis shadowed a syringe service program in Baltimore where she witnessed drug users ask the staff about recovery and detox services that had been mentioned to them during previous exchanges.
Baltimore reported that drug users utilizing a syringe service program were five times more likely to enter treatment than drug users not using the service.
For Commissioner Wes Hamrick, the ability to access drug users and provide them resources that could lead to recovery was what flipped his view from opposed to supportive — admitting that he came into Tuesday’s meeting opposed to the program.
In the last six years, Hamrick has helped with funeral services for 24 young adults.
“It’s numbing. It’s infuriating,” Hamrick said.
The presentation had the opposite effect on Commissioner Bill Buehrer, who said he was still “absolutely opposed” to the idea. Under a previous Board of Commissioners in 2012, the town passed a ban on synthetic drugs and the proposed syringe program contradicted that law, he said.
He was also upset by the Health Department’s response that non-users of illegal drugs, such as people with diabetes, would be screened to see if they had the financial resources to buy and dispose of needles before being able to access the program.
“I’m sick and tired of ‘these services are free.’ They’re not free. They’re paid by tax dollars,” Buehrer said.
The Health Department would need permission from the town to use a space or park a vehicle where the needle exchange would take place inside the municipality. The program would be run by trained staff, not the town.
Members of the Thurmont Police Department attended Tuesday’s meeting, including Chief Greg Eyler and Lt. Allen Droneburg. In the meeting, Droneburg asked a recovering addict in the room if he believed he would have had the presence of mind while in the throes of addiction to get to a syringe service location on time.
The recovering addict, Mike Shilling, who now works for the Frederick County Department of Health as a peer recovery specialist, said that he would.
Shilling grew up in Thurmont and said it wasn’t until he surrendered and accepted help — help that would also be offered to addicts using the syringe service — that he stopped using drugs. Mayor John Kinnaird said that while he had not always supported Shilling’s life choices, he was happy to see him in recovery.
“If we can save another Mike, it’s worth it to me,” Kinnaird said.
A week earlier, the Thurmont Police Department confirmed its officers had responded to two fatal overdose calls in January. Ellis also said that on average, Frederick County is responding to one overdose a day and one overdose death a week.
Members of the Thurmont Addiction Commission, which was created to advise the Board of Commissioners, also attended the meeting. Several of the members have children in recovery or who have died of an overdose.
“Our role today is we’re observing and listening and then we’ll come together and as a group come to a consensus in what we think is appropriate,” said the commission’s chairman, Jay Churchill.
The commission planned to make a formal recommendation to the mayor and Board of Commissioners on whether the town should move forward with the program.
The Health Department plans to make similar presentations in other Frederick County municipalities and communities, although none have been scheduled.