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Undoing Idaho’s lurch left, conservatives end subsidized drug abuse

Undoing Idaho’s lurch left, conservatives end subsidized drug abuse

Niklas Kleinworth
April 10, 2024

Idahoans have, through their tax dollars, paid for nearly one million needles to be distributed to those engaged in drug abuse. Thankfully, the Gem State will soon cease this practice.

House Bill 617 repeals Idaho’s five-year-old Syringe and Needle Exchange Act. This move is only the latest development in the fallout from the Idaho Harm Reduction Project (IHRP), a Boise nonprofit participating in the state’s Safer Syringe Program, distributing illegal paraphernalia.

Repealing the needle exchange act is a major victory for conservatives, who rightly pushed against this damaging policy. The Idaho Freedom Foundation has made the repeal of the Syringe and Needle Exchange Act a top priority since its passage. Just last year, the IFF worked to defund the program, only for the Department of Health and Welfare to circumvent new restrictions and continue the program with other monies.

Idaho’s Safer Syringe Program was the core of our state’s so-called harm reduction efforts. Programs such as this one are celebrated nationally for reducing the transmission of bloodborne diseases. Idaho’s program was also sold as a way to reduce needlestick injuries in our communities and connect drug users with rehab services.

Harm reduction efforts in Idaho had serious problems, though. They lacked the accountability, transparency, and direction they needed to reach the goals they promised to achieve. Instead, they effectively created a government entitlement for free-to-user drug paraphernalia.

The needle exchange program failed to connect drug users to rehab services. An average of 972 new needles were distributed to each participant in the program in the first two years of its operation. This number suggests that users found the program a way to continue their habit on the cheap, not a path to sobriety. The department notes that 1,511 referrals for treatment were made, but this figure raises questions about what qualifies as a referral, especially since only 964 people participated.

Failing in its goal to provide a path to rehab was not the only problem of the needle exchange. It also failed to control the public’s exposure to used needles. The state health department reports that 93% of the needles exchanged were returned to our streets — that is just under one million needles. Finally, there is no evidence that the program reduced needlestick injuries in Idaho’s communities.

The program is worse than ineffective; it is also plagued by mission creep. The IHRP expanded the Safer Syringe Program to also include “alternatives to injection.” This meant it would provide participants with supplies and instructions on how to “safely” smoke their drugs instead of injecting them. Though it was legal to operate a needle exchange in Idaho, distributing other forms of drug paraphernalia is not — including “safer smoking” supplies.

We don’t yet know the extent to which taxpayers footed the bill for overtly illegal activities. But there is evidence that the health department covered the cost of printing brochures to promote the program.

Private entities would carry out the needle exchange program, government officials told us. But that was merely a shell game. The IHRP, for example, relies on government grants for 96% of its revenues. Only 3.2% of its income comes from monetary donations and nongovernmental grants. This effectively makes the IHRP an extension of the Department of Health and Welfare.

If an alleged nonprofit lacks donations — freely given funds, not government grants — this demonstrates the community’s dim view of its value and work. What we have here is another example of the government propping up a bad idea that would otherwise die out in a true free market.

Subsidizing drug abuse, naturally, won’t fix the problem. Harm reduction, in principle, focuses on the symptoms rather than the underlying problem. “Safe drug abuse” is an oxymoron. Attempts to provide it merely enables and even increases risky behavior, not reduces it. There is no way to quantify how many of these government-funded needles delivered a lethal dose to a person who was promised safety.

Conservatives won the day by making the state reverse course. They must stay vigilant, however. The needle exchange law is repealed, but the federal funding used to support it will not go away. It will be reallocated to some other program. Which one? It could be something equally destructive.

Additionally, the problem of addiction in our state is not going away with the repeal of this law. Replacing the Safer Syringe Program with yet another government program would not be the solution, but a regression. And heartlessly outsourcing these lost members of our society to the care of the government is not the way forward.

Conservatives must stand on policies that promote stronger families and communities that will truly provide the necessary support for loved ones struggling with addiction. There is still much work to be done, but repealing the Syringe and Needle Exchange Act was a significant step in the right direction.

Idaho Freedom Foundation
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