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Free needles and crackpipes: In-depth look at Palm Springs’ harm reduction program

Free syringes, crack pipes, and other drug supplies are currently being handed out in Palm Springs, and they'll also soon be available in vending machines. News Channel 3's Peter Daut took a closer look at the new harm reduction program, which is generating strong opinions.

In a Palm Springs church parking lot on a recent Tuesday morning, people with drug addiction lined up to receive a variety of free supplies: from clean needles and containers to cookers to rubber tie-offs to two different kinds of pipes and much more, it's all provided by the organization DAP Health.

"Why do you think it is important to give people this?" Daut asked DAP Health Harm Reduction Supervisor Neil Gussardo. His response: "What we're looking to do, certainly kind of overarching, is save lives, reduce HIV and HEP C transmission, and have people be as healthy as they can be."

Daut also spoke with a homeless man, who said he shares the items with those who need them. "This is more hygienic, safer, cleaner, and sterile," the man said. "Most of the time people just resort to using dirty needles because they have no choice and their addiction draws them to it, so it's nice to save someone from that."

Five days a week, the organization's mobile clinic goes to locations throughout Palm Springs to distribute the items as part of its harm reduction program.

"What does harm reduction mean?" Daut asked DAP Health's Director of Community Health and Sexual Wellness Services C.J. Tobe, who replied: "Harm reduction is really about meeting people where they're at in their journey with addiction. Some people are going to show up today, and they're going to take equipment back home with them that's going to save their life, maybe their neighbor's, or their family. Other people may say, 'You know what? I want to stop right now,' and we'll get them enrolled into our outpatient drug-free program at DAP Health. And other people are part of their journey right now where they just want a hug, and they want somebody to talk to for ten minutes because this is the one spot where they can be treated like a human, because that's what they are." 

Something else the program provides: Narcan, a medication that reverses opioid overdoses, and fentanyl test strips. Overdose deaths involving fentanyl are surging throughout the Valley. Looking at just Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs and Indio-- the numbers are alarming. All four cities saw major jumps from 2020 to last year

DAP Health said it provided supplies to 2,618 people in Palm Springs over the past year, and 1,406 of them were referred to support services, including recovery centers. And the Narcan those people received is credited with reversing more than 1,000 overdoses.

Beginning this summer, the organization also plans to set up vending machines with all these items in Palm Springs: one on Highway 111, the other on Arena Road. But not everyone is on board.

"I see harm reduction as really dangerous. And it's essentially enabling people addicted to opiates," Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said. He believes in the age of fentanyl, there's no safe way for anyone to use drugs. "I think people should educate themselves. Yes, I understand they're trying to be compassionate. They see people who are hopelessly hooked on drugs and they're addicted. The best thing we can do is to get them to some type of rehabilitation center, get those addicts the help they need to get off drugs, and stop using illegal street drugs," he said.

It's a sentiment shared by the president of the Orange County Rescue Mission, Jim Palmer, who is one of the state's most outspoken critics when it comes to harm reduction programs. "It's such a great two words 'harm reduction.' It sounds wonderful, but you have to think and play this out. What does this actually mean to that individual? Are you showing them compassion by helping facilitate putting deadly things in their body that are slowly killing them? Or do you develop a relationship and a solution through sobriety and treatment?" he said.

Daut asked Gussardo: "There are critics who say this enabling and this is the wrong approach. Your response?" Gussardo replied: "If a person is not alive, they don't have the opportunity for growth and change."

Meanwhile, the homeless man Daut spoke with is grateful for the supplies he receives from DAP Health, which he said helps to keep him and other drug users safe. "It's realistic. It's not taking a blind eye to what's actually going on," he said.

Right now, DAP Health is the only Valley organization authorized by the state to operate this type of program. In addition to the vending machines, the organization is also looking to establish a fixed location where it can distribute the supplies three times a week, beginning next month.

The CDC endorses harm reduction programs, citing a landmark study in Seattle that found users were more likely to stop injecting, and five times more likely to enter drug treatment.

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Peter Daut


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