Automated Access to Safe Syringes

Vending Machines on a Mission
Las Vegas rolls out a tried and true harm reduction initiative
by Connie Rose

Photo by Christina Parreira/Trac-B Exchange

Harm reduction materials, safe sex items, pregnancy tests, and a variety of different needles gauges are not the normal items that come to mind when you’re thinking about what to get from a vending machine. Unless, you’re living in Las Vegas, Nevada. The state joins Puerto Rico, Europe, and Australia in providing people safe and automated access to safe, unused syringes, and harm reduction materials.

The privately funded project is a collaboration between the Southern Nevada Health District, Nevada AIDS Research and Education Society, and Trac-B Exchange.

This project is the direct result of the successful passing of the syringe access bill (SB410) authored by Senator David Parks and signed by then Governor Brian Sandoval on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.

Senator Parks is quoted in his first session as wanting to pursue, “employment non-discrimination, HIV/AIDS state funding and decriminalization of hypodermic needles.” Twenty-five years later and he has come through on those issues for Nevadans and many more. He is also a champion of the LGBTQ community and an avid supporter of women’s rights.

The first harm reduction vending machine was installed at Trac-B Exchange, located at 6114 W. Charleston Blvd., Las Vegas, Nevada, and presented to the community on April 13, 2017. Another vending machine was installed at Huntridge Family Clinic, located at 1830 E. Sahara Ave #210. And most recently the third one was installed at The Center, located at 401 S. Maryland Parkway.

The vending machines cannot be accessed by just anyone; they must be a client of one of the already established locations where the vending machines are located. They must obtain an electronic key card from a staff member at the facility that has a unique customer code. Each card then keeps track of and restricts the amount of times the person accesses harm reductions materials. And the vending machines do not accept money at all.

“This is a harm reduction approach,” said Todd Dickey, HIV Services Manager at The Center, where the third vending machine was recently installed. “People are already engaging in these behaviors, and anytime someone’s engaging in a behavior that could cause them some potential health side effects, we want to encourage them to reduce their risk of harm.”

In 2017 HHS declared a public health emergency and announced a 5-Point Strategy to Combat the Opioid Crisis.

By points they are:

• Improve access to prevention, treatment and recovery support services

• Target the availability and distribution of overdose-reversing drugs

• Strengthen public health data reporting and collection

• Support cutting-edge research on addiction and pain

• Advance the practice of pain management

The harm reduction machines have been successfully working for more than a decade in places like Europe and Australia.

By providing people who use injectables a vending machine option we are reducing one more barrier for them.

Traditional needle exchanges take resources, time, money, and volunteers to staff mobile or on-site programs. But those are only some of the obstacles, there is also the stigma that sometimes comes with people who use drugs that try to access harm reduction materials. If someone who uses drugs is stigmatized by an untrained volunteer while asking for a cleaning kit, they are more likely to not come back to that center or clinic, putting them at risk of practices that may cause harm.

What is in each of the kits being offered?

The cleaning kits will include alcohol wipes, a disposal container, Band-Aids, cotton balls, and a small container of bleach and saline.

Clients are able to use their card to obtain clean needles in a variety of sizes/gauges that also come with a hard-plastic container for them to use to dispose of needles safely and each vending machine should be equipped with a disposal receptor for used needles attached to the side, that is only accessible by a key.

Narcan is also available in the vending machines and also at each facility for anyone who asks. Pregnancy tests, safe sex kits and additional harm reduction materials are finally available as a selection after years of successful syringe access exchange proved the value of using automated access.

Needle exchange programs do not just prevent the spread of disease among people who use injectables. They also prevent abscesses, infections and damage to veins, helping better maintain overall health for people who are most at risk and marginalized. There is zero evidence that needle exchange programs encourage drug use but there is overwhelming evidence that they curb the spread of disease in any community able to provide it.

Great work, Nevada!

Connie Rose is a person living with HIV since 1996. Connect with Connie on Facebook @connie.rose.739 and Twitter @Cricketlv.