Las Vegas Hopes Needle Vending Machines Will Curb Disease

By: - April 19, 2017 12:00 am

A program manager demonstrates how to use a needle vending machine that will be available in three locations around Las Vegas by the end of May. The machines will allow drug users to get clean needles.

© Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal via The Associated Press

Las Vegas will be the first American city to offer a needle exchange program through vending machines. Officials hope easy access to free and clean needles will reduce the spread of hepatitis B and C and HIV among intravenous drug users.

Users will be able to get clean needles from three machines starting in May. The needle kits are free, but people who want to use them will have to fill out a form and get an ID number to track their use.

Users of at least one of the machines, which will be located at an existing counseling center, will be able to talk to professional counselors if they want treatment for their addiction.

Needle exchange programs were first developed in Europe in the 1980s as a way to discourage needle sharing and prevent the spread of disease. The concept has faced policy and funding challenges in the United States, but recently some local leaders have decided they want to go even further and offer spaces where users can take their drugs under medical supervision and without fear of arrest.

Though these “safe injection sites” exist in 27 cities around the world, there are none in the United States where there were an estimated million heroin users in 2014.

That could be changing, though. Earlier this year, King County, Washington, home to Seattle and 2 million residents, opened to door to such sites.

Proponents of the injection sites argue that addicts will use heroin regardless of its legality and that opening a safe place to do drugs can drive down crime in urban areas, prevent fatal overdoses and help guide users toward drug treatment and other health care.

Opponents of the sites say it is never wise to condone drug use and that safe injection locations could violate the federal Controlled Substances Act, which prohibits drug possession as well as operating a place where people use drugs.

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Sarah Breitenbach

Sarah Breitenbach, who writes about the business of government for Stateline, has spent much of her professional life writing about Maryland politics and policy. She began her career covering education and state government for the Frederick News-Post and has worked for the Gazette of Politics and Business and The Associated Press.