Dear Mike Pence: Opposing Needle Exchanges Is Both Stupid And Dangerous

Apparently I am just going to spend all day today writing about Indiana Governor Mike Pence and how incredibly awful he is.

In addition to signing a bill yesterday making it legal for businesses to discriminate against LGBT people, Gov. Pence also declared an HIV epidemic in south east Indiana. This was in response to 79 new cases, all linked to IV drug use. He also gave authorities the OK to begin a 30-day needle exchange program.

In regards to the program, Gov. Pence said, “I do not enter into this lightly. In response to a public health emergency, I’m prepared to make an exception to my long-standing opposition to needle exchange programs.”

Oh, what a mitzvah, Gov. Pence! It’s so nice of you to put the safety of your constituents ahead of your personal opposition to needle exchange programs … for 30 days. Which isn’t anywhere near long enough to actually do much good.

I need to know. What kind of stunad is opposed to needle exchange programs? Is it that he thinks these programs will make kids go “Oh cool, I guess I’ll go do heroin now!” Or that he thinks drug addiction is a crime that should be punished with an incredibly slow, painful and expensive death. Is it just cruelty for cruelty’s sake?

It’s certainly not an issue of wanting to save money, unless you are just really terrible at math. A needle exchange program costs about $160,000 a year, sure, but one syringe-infected AIDS patient racks up $120,000 in public health costs a year. You keep two people from contracting HIV through IV drugs, and your program has already more than paid for itself.

More importantly, they are effective. It is estimated that NEPs across the country have reduced HIV transmission rates by two-fifths to one-third overall. That is fucking amazing. That is a great, great thing. Who in their right mind would oppose that?

To boot, addicts who use NEP programs are five times more likely to go to rehab than those who don’t. A lot of the time, these programs can be used to help get people into treatment. This is also a really, really good thing.

Needle exchange programs are massively effective. They save lives and they save money (a bonus for those out there who care more about saving money than saving lives). And yet, the United States is the only country in the world that bans the use of federal money to fund them, even though 4,000 of our citizens contract HIV through needle sharing per year. And yet, we’ve got people like Governor Mike Pence acting like opposing them is a positive thing.

Look, I get that maybe Mike Pence feels “icky” about doing anything that could be considered “encouraging” a drug habit. But this is not just about drug addicts. This is about their families, and their children. Over one half of children infected with HIV have the virus because their parents used intravenous drugs. What did those kids ever do to you, Mike Pence? What did those families or the friends of that person ever do to you? Because let me tell you, it is heartbreaking enough to watch someone you love deal with a serious drug addiction without adding anything else on to that.

And even if it were just about drug addicts? It’s time to stop treating addicts like criminals or like the enemy and start treating them like human beings with an illness. A treatable illness.

What it comes down to is, do you want to make a point, or do you want to be effective? Sometimes, the thing that “feels right” to you is not the thing that is going to actually work. I don’t know if Mike Pence has ever known a heroin addict or not, but an addict is not going to stop shooting up because there aren’t any clean needles around. At that point, it is all about damage control. You do the best you can with the situation you have.

In an emergency situation, the first thing you do is stop the bleeding. If your kid climbs up a tree they weren’t supposed to be climbing, and falls down and splits their head open, are you going to stand there and lecture them about how they weren’t supposed to be climbing that tree, or are you going to call 911 and try to stop the kid from bleeding to death? You do the former, and sure, you can feel as though you were “right,” but your kid ends up dead because you were too busy worrying about making sure they knew what they did was wrong to stop the bleeding.

Trust me when I say that I am the last person on earth that wants anyone doing heroin. I hate that drug more than Gov. Mike Pence could ever dream of hating it. He’s gotta get to the back of the damn line. It has taken people I love from me, and it has broken my heart.

But you know what? I also know people who have recovered, and recovered amazingly. People deserve the chance to do that, and needle exchange programs give them that chance. There are enough dangers related to intravenous drug use as it is–overdoses being a big one–and anything we can do to prevent those dangers is a positive thing.

At the end of these 30 days, Pence will have the option to renew the needle exchange program. Hopefully, by then, he will have had the chance to speak to some people with a better understanding of these programs than he has, and opt to continue it. But, sadly, I’m not really expecting a lot.