SARASOTA – “It’s a really bad idea to use heroin, it’s a much worse idea to use heroin in such a way that you can get addicted to it, but it is by far the worst idea to die from being someone who used heroin,” Clinical Vice President of First Step Sarasota, Robert Piper, said.
Deaths from heroin are just a small part of the big picture.
“We also have the deaths that are connected to it,” Piper said, “and HIV, as you mentioned, is probably one of the most poignant.”
Florida is the #1 state for new cases of HIV and AIDS transmission.
“It’s time to have a dialogue about what we’re gonna do about this,” Piper said.
The main catalyst to the problem – needle sharing.
“One of the things that we are consistently asking is, ‘Are you sharing needles?'” John Acevedo of the Community Aids Network (CAN) said.
He said fifty percent of the time, that is the case.
“Once in a while, we’ll hear someone that might’ve picked up a needle in a park,” Acevedo said.
“..not making sure that a needle they’re gonna use to get high, is safe,” Piper said.
Piper said we now need to look at harm reduction.
“One way you stay alive is you do things like needle exchange programs,” Piper said.
But, needle exchange programs have been the subject of controversy.
“It’s been a fight over the last five years to get this program approved through the state legislature,” Acevedo said.
Right now there’s a privately funded pilot program in Miami. The Florida legislature didn’t want a needle exchange program to be funded through public dollars.
“Because to them, they felt it was promoting the use of drugs,” Acevedo said.
“You have to set the judgment aside,” Piper said. “Do you want them to get AIDS just because they chose to do heroin?”
Piper said these programs don’t promote drug use.
“They make sense, at least in that you don’t spread those diseases further,” Piper said.
Addicts are going to do the drugs, whether they have clean needles or not.
“When it comes to individuals that have addiction, they’re gonna find a way to do and continue their addiction,” Acevedo said.
No one knows that better than author Johnnie Calloway.
“I was a drug addict for 20 years,” Calloway said.
He couldn’t afford opioids, so he made his own drugs.
“I don’t know why I never shared a needle,” Calloway said. “I just wouldn’t do it.”
But, he had a lot of friends who did.
“I had a lot of friends die,” Calloway said. “They got into the needles and swapped ’em and ended up with HIV; some of them ended up with Hep C.”
That was something he couldn’t really process at the time.
“You have a way of being so focused on getting more drugs that you kind of detach yourself from the pain of loss,” Calloway said.
“They’re in the underworld of our society,” Piper said. “They’re running to get their drugs, they’re trying to stay high, their life is totally chaos.”
Calloway is grateful to be alive, but others aren’t as lucky.\
“I have no idea why I’m still here,” Calloway said, “because with what I was doing, I shouldn’t be.”
Piper just wants to get the conversation going and save as many addicts as possible.
“I love my clients,” Piper said. “Yeah, lets keep them healthy. Let’s save their lives.”