The Stigma of Harm Reduction

Oct 26, 2013

“In the best of times, we’re a hard sell,” is how Mona Bennett, one of the founders of the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, puts it.

Credit Joeff Davis / Creative Loafing

The AHRC provides many services for clients—but its needle exchange program seems to attract the most attention.  

Used to be an IV drug user could walk up with 700 dirty needles, deposit them into one of these red, biohazard tubs the size of a dorm refrigerator, and leave with 700 clean ones. 

Not anymore, says Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition outreach coordinator Verna Gaines. 

“We’re on what we call a ‘syringe diet,’ because we’re low on funding when it comes to syringes.”

Last year, the AHRC made due with a $320,000 budget.

This year, it’s down to $120,000, thanks partly to cuts in state funding. 

And when you add in the stigma of IV drug use, donors become scarce.

But neither finances nor the fact that what they’re doing is illegal in Georgian have stopped this small team from their work.   Yet, anyway. 

Every Wednesday and Saturday, it’s the same routine – tote food, drinks, and drug injection kits known as “the works” out of this unmarked Northwest Atlanta duplex into a rickety Winnebago.

It’s a 30-second drive to the James P. Brawley and Cameron Alexander where the RV parks.  

This infamous corner in the English Ave. neighborhood is known as “The Bluff,” the South’s biggest heroin market.

A line’s already formed.

Claude—we’re only using his first name—steps onto the RV.  He turns in 15 used needles and walks out with 20.

“They come out and help me.  I get my works—my needles and stuff,” he says.  “They give me my cotton balls, alcohol pads, whatever I need to do what I need to do.”

Claude shoots cocaine or heroin or the two together—called a “speed ball.”

Reporter:  It’s pretty easy to get out here?

Claude: “Yeah, easy. Real easy.  Every corner.  Woman or man, it doesn’t matter.”

One argument against needle exchanges, and the spirit behind Georgia’s decades-old anti-paraphernalia law, is they promote IV drug use.  They enable addicts.  

Outreach coordinator Verna Gaines says people will use drugs no matter what barriers are in place.  But clean needles are a proven way to reduce HIV transmission rates.  That alone is why you have to—in her words—meet them where they are.

“We never understand the reason people use. And they do get clean. They become doctors. They become lawyers. They become parents.  They become reporters.”

On this Wednesday, there’s at least one success story.  Or the potential for one.  Beverly, a middle-aged woman with a slow drawl and glassy eyes tells Gaines, "I’m ready."

She’s gone through treatment three times before.    

Beverly leaves with her clean needles.  To Gaines, this is what her job is all about.  Small victories.  Even so, she worries how long AHRC can keep its doors open.

The non-profit has just enough funding to get it through the end of the year. 

[The Heavy Lift is a collaboration between WABE News and Creative Loafing.  To read Rodney Carmichael's cover story on AHRC, click here.]