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Jacksonville could get a needle exchange program early next year

Jacksonville could become the latest municipality in Florida to have a needle exchange program, an attempt to stifle disease spread through dirty needles.

Councilman Michael Boylan plans to introduce an ordinance that would create a privately funded program where residents can exchange used syringes, typically from illicit drug-use, for new, sterile ones free of cost.

Boylan said the Office of General Counsel has completed a draft of the bill, and it could be submitted by the next City Council meeting Oct. 26

Similar programs have decreased rates of overdose and bloodborne infections such as Hepatitis C and HIV. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, found that HIV prevalence decreased from 50% to 17% as a result of needle exchange programs.

Inspire to Rise, a community center on Jacksonville's Westside, would be the site of the program, where the center also would supply related services supported financially by the city like addiction support, rehabilitation and overdose treatment. It provides many of those services already, five days a week.

"It's a free clinic that's manned by volunteers in medicine. There's a 'Hey, listen, you dropped off some needles? Are you ready yet to see about getting help, improving your situation? And you know, we've got some counseling, we've got some help for you right across the campus here,'" Boylan said. "You take them over there to see if we can get them started on their road to recovery."

Councilman Ron Salem, who chairs City Council's Special Committee on Opioids and Mental Health, gave the idea his backing when that committee met Thursday. He predicted there would be some initial push-back from some other council members.

"When people hear the word needle exchange, there's an immediate 'Stop.' It will be incumbent upon those, like me, to go to those meetings and understand the comprehensive nature of this needs to be communicated on the front end," he said.

Boylan believes reluctant City Council members will be convinced once they see evidence of success from around the state. The state legislature, which leans heavily Republican, made needle exchange sites legal in 2019 after a three-year pilot program in Miami-Dade County. Boylan said he asked state Sen. Aaron Bean, a Republican who represents Nassau county and part of Duval, what made him support the measure.

"[Bean] said, 'Michael, historically I would not support such a program, but the data was compelling,' and that's why he did then and I think that's going to be the same message here. It is compelling," Boylan said.

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office reported that as of Wednesday 315 people had died from overdoses this year in Jacksonville, compared with 317 by the end of October last year. With two more weeks left in the month, Jacksonville is on course to surpass 2020's overdose death count, an increase thatfollows a national trend since 2015.

"At face value, a lot of folks think we're enabling with such a program, but we enable them today," Boylan said. "When you have someone who has overdosed we put them in indigent care facilities that have costs of 10's of thousands of dollars. Hepatitis C remediation for that is about $84,000 per episode, and of course HIV is a lifetime issue,

"We really need to figure out a different way. This is not going to be the silver bullet to solve the problem, but it's another tool in the toolbox that allows individuals and families to take care of their loved ones."

Reporter Raymon Troncoso joined WJCT News in June of 2021 after concluding his fellowship with Report For America, where he was embedded with Capitol News Illinois covering Illinois state government with a focus on policy and equity. You can reach him at (904) 358-6319 or and follow him on Twitter @RayTroncoso.