Why I Support Safe Syringe Disposal in Tennessee

One of my few hobbies is picking up litter around my community. I’ll go litter-picking, as I call it, anywhere from once a month to three or four times a week. In just the past year, I’ve found used syringes in my small, rural area on at least five occasions.

After posting about my most recent run-in with irresponsibly thrown-out used sharps on Facebook in November, a local resident commented and claimed they, too, found a used syringe less than a mile away from me.

Although the potential of catching diseases like HIV or hepatitis C via needlestick injuries is low, nobody wants to come into contact with errantly-discarded used syringes.

Why Don’t We Increase Police Presence and Clamp Down on Prosecuting Syringe Possession?

This is a common response from people who I’ve told this story to. Small-town Martin, Tennessee, a low-key college town with great public schools, is a great place to grow up, say residents. Every local resident I’ve told about my run-ins with used syringes is baffled.

They usually respond by sharing sentiments that wholeheartedly disapprove of drug use. After all, people who inject drugs (PWID) know what they’re getting into ahead of time. Why tolerate such tomfoolery?

Police Are Already Harsh on People with Syringes

Police are already unforgiving of people found in possession of syringes. Judges aren’t fond of these “criminals,” either. Possession of syringes without a prescription often results in criminal charges.

Here are two recent, local examples of how law enforcement typically isn’t fond of people found in possession of syringes.

Example #1

A young, 25-year-old who lives in Martin named Zack — that’s not his real name, of course — got pulled over about a year ago here in Martin. A naloxone kit I’d given Zack was in his truck’s glovebox. The officer(s) found the naloxone kit and immediately thought the packaged, unopened, 25-gauge syringe was intended for injecting drugs. This kit, which included the syringe, two vials of naloxone, and a sheet of instructions, was in a bag clearly decorated with a large, white sticker that read “Intramuscular Naloxone Kit.”

Zack was not in possession of drugs at the time he was stopped. He also wasn’t under the influence of any drugs. Fortunately, he wasn’t arrested on any criminal charges.

It surprised me that the presiding police officers weren’t aware that 25-gauge, Luer-Lok, 3-mL syringes are almost never, ever used by injection drug users.

Example #2

In September 2019, I was pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy for speeding in Madison County, about an hour south of Martin. The deputy asked to search the vehicle. I refused. Before a K9 was called to the scene, I informed that deputy that I was in possession of syringes. I said nothing else and was not in possession of drugs or other paraphernalia.

The K9 alerted to drugs that weren’t there, giving the deputy and his crew probable cause to search the vehicle. Only the syringes I reported were found.

T.C.A. 40–7–124, a 2015 law, prevents Tennesseans from getting charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail and a $2,500 fine, if they inform law enforcement that they’re in possession of sharps that have been used as drug paraphernalia prior to getting searched.

Further, syringes that haven’t been used as drug paraphernalia cannot be construed as evidence for charging someone with possession of drug paraphernalia, a violation of T.C.A. 39–17–425.

No matter what, I shouldn’t have been charged with possession of drug paraphernalia.

Here’s Why Criminalizing Syringe Possession and Use Won’t Work

Why do people throw syringes on the ground? Why don’t they properly dispose of them like self-respecting human beings? Here’s why:

  • Injection drug users (IDU) are scared of catching criminal charges from syringe possession.
  • IDUs have nowhere to legally or safely dispose of used syringes in Tennessee outside of the six syringe services programs (SSP) recognized by the state. The closest SSP to Martin is over 130 miles away. The next closest SSP is over 145 miles away.
  • People who inject drugs (PWID) around here haven’t been educated about how to safely dispose of syringes. The most appropriate, 100% free option is to dispose of used syringes in a 2-liter bottle, empty laundry detergent bottle, etc. The bottles should then be marked as “biohazard,” “sharps,” or “syringes.” It’s also a good idea to secure the top with tape once full.
  • PWID are scared of coworkers, loved ones, friends, and even fellow drug users finding out about their injection drug habit.

Benefits of Instituting Safe Syringe Disposal Locations

Social isolation is closely tied to problem drug use. PWID are more likely to seek treatment and have better long-term outcomes when they have closer ties to their communities.

Improves local residents’ relationships with the communities they live in.

Reduces criminal charges incurred by drug users, the majority of whom aren’t violent.

Many people in active addiction struggle from mental health problems that need to be dealt with via evidence-based mental health treatment providers. By creating areas in which IDU feel safe, they’re more likely to be interested in, seek out, and ultimately enroll in treatment.

Prescription Drug Take Back Day is an event held annually throughout Tennessee. These events are often manned by law enforcement officers, public health workers (e.g., physicians, nurses), and social services employees (e.g., counselors). By accepting used syringes at these events, PWID would: grow closer to the community; feel better about themselves since community leaders are accepting of them, even in active addiction; be more likely to seek out help from law enforcement, social services, and public health sectors; and encourage PWID to be more trusting of resources provided by cities, counties, and the state.

What Can We Do to Hasten the Adoption of Safe Syringe Disposal Locations?

Here are several things everybody can do to effectively encourage politicians, stakeholders, and laypeople alike to support the adoption of safe syringe disposal locations:

  • Talk to people you know in person — not on social media — about potentially crossing paths with used syringes in unexpected places (e.g., public bathrooms, sidewalks).
  • Write, call, and talk to local judges, police chiefs, sheriffs, state representatives and senators, health departments, and prevention coalitions about the benefits of safe syringe disposal locations.
  • Get involved with community-based organizations and local meetings such as those held by chambers of commerce and city boards. Befriend people who regularly attend them and share your ideas with them in a friendly, open-minded, understanding, well-researched manner.
  • Find brochures and pamphlets about syringe exchanges, for example, online or from harm reduction peer educators like myself, print them out, and distribute them to laypeople in your community — even if you don’t know them personally.
  • Connect with entities that deal with addiction treatment and drug use prevention such as rehabs and prevention coalitions. Share your ideas, such as expanding syringe access, with them.

Oftentimes, when people try to advocate for causes via the Internet, other people aren’t willing to listen. Neutral parties and opponents alike are likely to argue with proponents of adopting safe syringe disposal locations, ultimately causing rifts between those who do support the idea and advocates’ target audience members.

The best way to avoid this is to simply avoid using the Internet to spread this cause. It’s okay to organize advocacy efforts with like-minded advocates using the ‘net, as well as to perform research. Otherwise, avoid using the Internet, especially social media!

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