If you don't know what you're looking for, you might never notice that some of the seemingly innocent pieces of garbage showing up beneath the melting snow are tied to the dark world of addiction and IV drug use. Not many people would recognize the tiny plastic single-use sterile water vials, plastic pieces off disposable cookers, or the packaging they come in after they've spent the winter season buried underneath feet of snow. But these past couple of years it has been more than just obscure remnants scattered here and there around town. Even those completely unfamiliar with drug use can clearly identify a single-use needle discarded in the snow bank, and that has become an all too common sight here.
Frighteningly, this problem is all over the city. It's not something confined to known drug areas as you might suspect - it is absolutely everywhere. As the weather warms, discarded needles, cookers, tourniquets, water vials and the like are being revealed in all corners of the city. Aside from the obvious eyesore, this can be a very dangerous situation, and one that I'm willing to bet is not unique to my hometown. While the general consensus is that accidental needle stick injuries pose a relatively low risk of infection, the risk is there nonetheless. I'm sure you've all come across a story in the media at some point or another about the nightmare situation of a young child coming across or being poked by, an uncapped dirty needle found discarded while the child was out playing.
This makes the increasing incidence of improperly disposed sharps a very real issue facing many communities as the incidence of IV drug use continues to increase in popularity. Ten years ago, at least in my area, needle use was relatively uncommon and stigmatized. Fast forward to today however, and it's made its way much further into the mainstream, gaining popularity at an alarming rate. Once relegated to a small group of hard users, needle use has become a much more openly accepted route of administration for a number of different illicit drugs, and the problem of improperly disposed sharps is increasing along side it.
It is certainly not an easy problem to fix, but the answer lies in the important initiative of Harm Reduction. Harm Reduction is a set of principles, policies and initiatives designed to reduce and curb the often harmful effects and consequences associated with drug use and sex work. Common initiatives often consist of needles exchanges, free communicable diseases testing, and access to health and drug treatment services. Needle Exchange Centres provide free clean single-use syringes, along side needle disposal containers or sharps bins to be used by the addict. Once the bin is full, it can then be returned to the needle exchange upon the next visit for proper disposal of bio hazardous materials. Some exchanges will even offer to deliver and pickup sharps containers from users to help ensure proper disposal. Of course this also requires cooperation from the addict, which some exchanges try to ensure by requiring the return of any sharps taken from the exchange. Although this is not an overly common practice, as it can in some cases discourage addicts to return for more safe and clean supplies if they are unable to return the previously used ones. Others have recently suggested offering money in exchange for return & safe disposal of used sharps, similar to what The Beer Store does when it offers 10¢ for each can/bottle upon its return to the store. In my opinion, I believe that method would be highly successful, but does have the possibility of being abused.
No one wants to live in a community scattered full of dirty needles and used discarded drug supplies, not even addicts. Trust me. Implementing harm reduction policies and increasing awareness is the best way to combat this growing issue facing many cities. While community initiatives and clean ups are great ways to help create a safer space, in order to get at the heart of the issue, we need to increase awareness, implement harm reduction programs and stop stigmatizing the problems associated addiction. That way when the snow melts next spring, we can all join forces and focus on the dog shit.