Florida’s first needle exchange program has served 240 people since opening its doors in November 2016. The University of Miami initiative has also saved nine lives since it began handing out an overdose antidote in April.
At an April 28 press conference, IDEA program founder Dr. Hansel Tookes described the early success.
“In just one months’ time, with a very limited program, we have already had nine reverses,” Tookes said. “So that’s nine lives of our fellow Miami citizens that have been saved through this program.”
The IDEA program is located at 1636 NW 7th Avenue, near several other UM health facilities. It’s across the street from a homeless shelter and within walking distance of impoverished neighborhoods where drug sales are common, according to the Miami Herald.
The needle exchange was designed to reduce the prevalence of HIV diagnoses in South Florida. It’s a test program that advocates hope will be replicated across the state.
Florida led the United States in new HIV diagnoses in 2013. The state ranked second in rates of HIV diagnoses in 2014 and 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Miami area had the highest rate of HIV diagnoses among major metropolitan areas in the country in 2014, according to the CDC. The Miami metro area includes Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach.
The IDEA program exchanges clean needles for used ones, reducing the chance of spreading diseases. In April, it began training participants to use the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan. The nasal spray contains naloxone, which reverses the effects of a heroin overdose in minutes. People who overdose on stronger opioids, such as fentanyl, often require multiple doses.
Most needle exchange participants walk into the building on 7th Avenue, but staff members also travel the streets of nearby neighborhood to find people who need to exchange needles. In May, the program will begin sending a bus across the city to search for participants, according to the Miami Herald.
For five years, Tookes advocated for a needle exchange program in Florida, according to the Miami Herald. As a medical student, he led a study that compared how intravenous drug users disposed of needles in San Francisco, a city with a needle exchange program, to Miami, a city without an exchange program.
In San Francisco, the researchers found 44 syringes for every 1,000 city blocks. In Miami, they found 371 syringes for every 1,000 blocks, according to the 2012 study.
During the following years, Tookes campaigned for a needle exchange program in Miami. He traveled to Tallahassee to speak to the Florida Legislature. He spoke to media. He earned a master’s degree in public health and completed a medical degree. He published another study that found infections related to injection drug use cost a Miami hospital $11.4 million during a one-year period.
In 2016, Tookes’s hard work paid off. Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a law authorizing the University of Miami to distribute clean needles in exchange for dirty syringes. The exchange is a four-year pilot program that requires private funding.
A week before the IDEA program press conference, a pair of Drug Enforcement Administration agents spoke to Florida Atlantic University students about the opioid epidemic in South Florida. The April 21 presentation was part of a new DEA approach that emphasizes community outreach.
Dr. Justin Miller, the DEA’s Miami intelligence manager, and Assistant Special Agent in Charge Jonathan White explained how prescription drugs contributed to the opioid epidemic. The agents warned students that dealers mix drugs with a variety of dangerous substances.
The presentation was more than a lecture on the dangers of drugs. It was a request to help raise awareness, according to the FAU student newspaper the University Press.
“Help us break the myths about these pills in Grandma and Grandpa’s medicine cabinets,” White told the students. “They are dangerous when they are not used properly. It is essentially synthetic heroin.”
The community outreach is part of the DEA’s new 360 strategy. The initiative emphasizes community outreach in addition to law enforcement and diversion control. Advocates hope that outreach initiatives like the IDEA program and the DEA’s 360 strategy will turn the tide in the battle against addictive substances.