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Fargo leaders vote for new syringe exchange program downtown

FARGO — A new downtown needle exchange program was approved by the City Commission on Monday, Feb. 12, but not without a debate about providing clean syringes to drug users.

The commission voted 4-1 to approve Fargo Cass Public Health's Good Neighbor Project Syringe Services Program in a city-owned building at 510 5th St. N. Dave Piepkorn cast the lone dissenting vote.

John Baird, the county's health officer and coroner, said this "harm reduction" program comes with several benefits, including removing potentially infected needles and helping drug users get tested for diseases and find treatment options.

He said syringe services have been in the U.S. since the 1980s, and studies from recent decades show the benefits that come with this strategy.

A study in Madison, Wis., found that the number of new cases of HIV among people who inject drugs was cut in half over a decade. Baird said there are also potential cost savings because the cost of treating someone for HIV is between $60,000 and $90,000 per year, and medication to treat hepatitis C can cost $35,000 annually.

He also cited a 2000 study that found new visitors to a needle exchange were five times more likely to enter drug treatment after talking with staff.

Baird said the Fargo program will distribute opioid overdose kits and offer rapid testing for HIV and hepatitis C, along with STD counseling.

Public Health Director Ruth Roman said the program has an annual budget of $128,000, with $75,000 coming from a grant from the North Dakota Department of Health to launch the offering and have Fargo staff provide help as other programs start in the state.

Piepkorn questioned how to justify spending public money on syringes for illegal drug users.

"I cannot for the life of me believe that we have medical people proposing this in the city of Fargo," Piepkorn said.

Commissioner John Strand said more needs to be done about the "crisis barreling down the tracks at us," referring to the opioid epidemic.

Commissioner Tony Gehrig said most people he talked with oppose the idea. But he said there is plenty of evidence suggesting it's an effective way to get more people into treatment, which is why he supported the plan.

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson has been a Forum reporter since 2012 and previously wrote for the Grand Forks Herald.

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