Volunteers Crowdfund Arizona's Biggest Syringe Access Program

By Keri Blakinger 09/29/17

A volunteer-led program called Shot in the Dark is sharing their story with the public to promote their cause and raise money for supplies. 

Shot in the Dark volunteers
Shot in the Dark volunteers

At first glance, it seems like a pretty average GoFundMe page. There’s a smiling group picture, a lengthy plea for aid and a donation tracking bar. But Grace Boardman isn’t raising funds for a vet bill or home repairs. She’s crowdfunding a needle exchange

Called Shot in the Dark, the underground syringe program has been up and running for years, serving the greater Phoenix area. But the shot at online funding sparked renewed public interest and media attention for the quiet not-for-profit organization. 

“We’re the only exchange in Maricopa County,” Boardman said. And even though they’re run out of the trunks of cars, Shot in the Dark is on track to hand out more than a million points this year.

But despite the group’s vitality and recent local media furor, the online campaign has only netted a modest $2,700 in donations—just over half of its goal.

“Shot In The Dark is Arizona’s largest syringe access program,” the page reads. “It is led entirely by volunteers and aims to address the impact of the opioid epidemic through non-judgmental solidarity and direct services to people who inject drugs in the Phoenix area.”   

A core group of 15 or so volunteers work every week to dole out harm reduction supplies at a fixed collection of sites—a list available mostly by word-of-mouth—during regular two-hour windows about seven times a week. Sometimes, they do deliveries. 

“For the most part, the police leave us alone,” Boardman said to The Fix. The legality of the program is “kind of a gray area,” she added. “In Arizona you can legally go into a pharmacy and buy syringes without a prescription but it’s up to the pharmacist’s discretion—so in like Tempe or Phoenix, you’re not going to get them.”

To bridge the accessibility gap, Shot in the Dark distributes 30 syringes per client, an unlimited supply of condoms, and naloxone doses and training available to Copper State residents. For the most part, they maintain their bulk supplies through help from private donors and in-kind donations.

Although Maricopa County is infamous for its controversial former sheriff, Joe Arpaio, Boardman says the forward-thinking harm reduction group hasn’t faced too much pushback. “It’s a toss-up,” she said. “When you tell somebody about it, some people just get it. Some people need a little prodding—and some people are aggressively against it.” 

For Boardman, getting involved was a no-brainer. The 20-year-old works in health insurance, but as a kid she watched her mom work in behavioral health and addiction treatment. “I just grew up watching her do stuff like that and I always thought she was a superhero,” she said. And that’s part of what’s given her faith in the power of harm reduction. 

“I’ve seen so many people come out the other side of it and be successful and I think being able to see that so many times has definitely give me optimism,” she said. “But Shot in the Dark isn’t about trying to push people in recovery. It’s about trying to keep people safe while they’re doing what they’re doing.”

And her mom’s doing it alongside her; Broadman’s mother has her own weekly distribution site through Shot in the Dark.

For Jacob Weiss, who turned to the program during his struggle with addiction, those weekly distribution sites could be a life-saver.

"I've literally seen somebody pick up a syringe off the ground they found and use it to shoot up before," he told local media. "If you don't have access to them, you're not going to stop doing drugs, you're just going to deal with it and use dirty messed up gear.”

But Boardman and her fellow volunteers have plenty of work cut out for them, even if they have a receptive client base. “Arizona is getting worse and worse every day,” Boardman said. “We’re seeing sky-high amounts of overdoses compared to even a year ago.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.