'Off-The-Books' Needle Exchange Program In Indiana Addresses Growing HIV Outbreak

By McCarton Ackerman 04/29/15

An underground needle exchange program in Indianapolis offers hope to heroin addicts.

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Despite Indiana openly opposing needle exchange and harm reduction programs for intravenous drug users, the state has turned a blind eye to one woman who has been operating such a program out of her home for years.

Theresa McCorkle-Pasco runs the only needle exchange program in the city of Indianapolis. Her “off-the-books” program gives users clean needles and condoms upon request and she almost never asks questions. With intravenous drug use and prostitution resulting in 138 new cases of HIV in Scott and Jackson Counties, in addition to another potential 120 cases that have not been accounted for, state and health officials are ignoring current laws in order to address a growing health crisis.

Her husband, Larry Pasco, an HIV patient and former heroin addict, ran the Harm Reduction Institute of Indianapolis for nearly 20 years until his death earlier this month. Last fall, he was even invited by Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller to speak at an anti-drug symposium in Indianapolis. Although a spokeswoman for Zoeller said that Pasco was invited “to speak on naloxone programs [and] not syringe exchanges,” Zoeller also voiced his support for such programs.

“We need to get more naloxone out there, but we also need the needle exchange because this is going to be a growing problem in our state,” he said to 24-Hour News 8. “It’s predictable. We need to stop it before it does what everyone predicts.”

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence also recently renewed an executive order authorizing a needle exchange program in Scott County to address this issue. More than 5,000 needles have been exchanged in Scott County over the last 30 days, but the governor said he would not endorse a statewide needle exchange bill.

“I would veto it,” said Pence last March. “I don’t believe that an effective anti-drug policy involves handing out paraphernalia to drug users by government officials.” Some have objected to the program over concerns that it encourages drug use and has led to littering of dirty needles, with Scott County resident Tammy Breeding declaring that “they don’t need needles. They need prayer and rehab.”

Washington D.C., along with 27 states, have reduced legal barriers to needle exchange programs. Temple University law professor Scott Burris said the states have all seen at least some success in reducing the spread of HIV and that Pence’s “rationalization for discomfort” isn’t a good enough reason to halt making these programs more widespread.

“I’m sympathetic to them feeling that way. I’m not sympathetic to them failing to get over those feelings and saving lives,” said Burris. “The feeling is wrong. We have needle exchange all over the world. We’ve had it for 25 years. We have no evidence of any of these harmful effects.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.