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Needle exchange program plans expansion into Niagara County

LOCKPORT – The organization that operates a needle exchange program for intravenous drug users in Buffalo is planning to open a site in Niagara Falls.

Officials of Evergreen Health Services told the Niagara County Board of Health Thursday that they are awaiting State Health Department approval for their planned location at 2470 Allen Ave. in the Falls. The building is near 27th Street, a block north of Buffalo Avenue.

The board voted unanimously to have Public Health Director Daniel J. Stapleton send the organization a letter of support for the new location.

Evergreen took over a pre-existing needle exchange at 206 S. Elmwood Ave., Buffalo, in 2006. Last August, it opened a second location at 31 Water St., Jamestown.

Lockport and Dunkirk are next on the group’s target list after Niagara Falls, according to Emma Fabian, program manager.

Needle exchange programs are licensed by the state, but Evergreen operates the only ones in Western New York, said Josh McClain, Evergreen’s senior director of behavioral health.

They provide drug users with free, clean needles, a method which the group’s speakers said reduces the spread of the HIV virus as well as hepatitis C. Clean needles also may curtail the recent epidemic of deaths from overdoses of opiates.

Maribeth Lorenze hopes so. Her 20-year-old son died of an intravenous opiate overdose in the 600 block of Ashland Avenue in the Falls in 2010.

“The 600 block of Ashland Avenue at that time was considered the heroin district. Now all of Niagara Falls is a mess,” Lorenze said.

She said needle exchange services have not been conveniently located for Niagara County residents. As a cook for veterans recovering from substance abuse at Freedom Village in Wheatfield, she said she hears the nitty-gritty about the IV drug scene and why junkies don’t seek medical help.

“If there’s a warrant out for their arrest, if they go to a hospital, they’re going to jail,” she said.

McClain said Evergreen doesn’t condone drug use and hopes to provide a bridge to treatment. In the meantime, its program emphasizes “harm reduction.”

“We may not agree with every choice they’re making,” McClain said. “The catchphrase we use every day is, ‘Meeting people where they’re at.’”

Fabian said for every 100 clean needles Evergreen distributes, more than 90 are returned to their facilities.

In areas where a formal syringe exchange program isn’t available, drugstores are allowed to sell up to 10 syringes at a time to those over age 18. Thirty-eight Niagara County pharmacies are included in the state-approved Expanded Syringe Access Program.

“This is a good program, because we can stop the spread of disease,” said Board of Health President John Gotowko, a pharmacist at Wende Correctional Facility in Alden. “I haven’t seen anybody stop using drugs, though (as a result).”