For more than 15 years, I’ve been volunteering with the local syringe access program here in San Francisco. I stand behind a grocery store for a couple of hours on Tuesday nights with some other volunteers, collecting used syringes in a biohazard bucket, and giving out new ones, along with supplies, advice, and respect.
As a volunteer gig, I love it; I get to see the concrete results of the policy advocacy work I do for my job. But what I do is minor compared to the exchangers who come through the program every week.
They are doing the far more important work of actively taking care of themselves, their friends and family members, and our community. The exchangers are doing what they can to ensure that HIV and hepatitis C transmission end among people who inject drugs in this city.
While they are there, some of them also get trained in how to use naloxone to prevent overdose deaths. They share information about what’s happening on the street, pick up flyers for hep C support groups, volunteer for research projects, grab some food for themselves or their friends, as well as getting the sterile syringes they need to inject drugs.
They don’t need to read all of the peer-reviewed journal articles to know that syringe access is effective. They don’t need to listen to public testimony to understand the benefits it can have for their health. They get it. That’s why they’re there.
The Drug Policy Alliance envisions new drug policies grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights. Sterile syringe access to prevent HIV and hepatitis C transmission is all of those things: it is an evidence-based, well-researched public health intervention. It is a compassionate way to engage with people who use drugs by giving them what they need to take care of themselves. It improves individual and community health and well-being, and it respects the human rights of people who inject drugs.
When we say that we want a just society without the fears, prejudices, and punitive prohibitions of current drug policy, we mean that we want syringe access programs like this one fully funded and supported as part of our public health system everywhere, not just in cities like San Francisco.
The people I see in the alley behind Safeway on Tuesday evenings understand this. The Drug Policy Alliance understands this. The American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) understands this. Now we need members of Congress to catch up with the rest of us and lift the ban on using federal funds for syringe access for HIV and hepatitis prevention. Please watch this video and let your elected officials know that you agree with us.
This video, from our partners at amfAR, shows what syringe access services look like across the country, with commentary from some of the most respected researchers on the topic. Please watch it and ask your elected officials to support lifting the federal ban.