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Needle Exchange Debate Reignites; Holyoke City Council Delays Vote

NeedlesHOLYOKE, Mass (WGGB) — Debate over needle exchange fired up again at the Holyoke City Council meeting Tuesday. Voters shot down the program by two percent in a non-binding vote on Election Day. Now, the question is if the agency that runs the program, Tapestry Health, will stay in the city.

It’s currently operating as a pilot program, approved 16 months ago by the Board of Health and Mayor Alex Morse. To the disdain of some councilors, the city council has never voted in on the issue, despite the fact that the issue has been brought up as an agenda item in the past.

Tuesday, dozens of needle exchange supporters pleaded with councilors to support the program. However, the issue was sent to a public safety committee for further debate. Councilors said it would allow a public hearing to be held, but other stressed one other major reason: a pending lawsuit alleging Mayor Morse overstepped his authority by opening the program without city council approval.

“It’s simply about this local approval,” Councilor Daniel Bresnahan said to his colleagues, after noting that he personally understands the drug and disease issue. “We give them this, next month something else might come down the pike and it might be what you are for.”

“Do you really think if this council votes it down, do you think they are closing up shop tomorrow?” Council President Kevin Jourdain emphatically questioned. “Nobody in this room believes that because they didn’t care about your vote in the first place!”

Supporters stressed that despite being narrowly voted down city wide vote, the wards most affected by AIDS, other diseases, and drug use supported needle exchange.

Juan Sanchez is one of those supporters. His mother died of AIDS 13 years ago after contracting the disease through a dirty needle. He questions if the program could have saved her life and is frustrated that the council hasn’t already voted in favor of the program.

“The fact is that for two months people’s live were tabled,” Sanchez said. “This is the reality that a lot of people live here in the City of Holyoke. It should have been voted on tonight and unfortunately it wasn’t.”

“It quite literally is saving lives,” Tapestry Health Director of Prevention Services Tim Purrington said. “The evidence out there is so strong and it is so clear that it will reduce HIV infections.”

Purrington runs the program and says 40,000 needles have been exchanged with over 500 clients in 16 months. He says more needles have come in than have gone out and agrees with Sanchez that a health issue shouldn’t be a political one. They both plan to fight for the program until it’s approved, for good.

“Not because it’s going to be the end all of heroin use, not because it’s going to be the end of all HIV and AIDS, but because statistics show that it does save lives,” Sanchez said.

Mayor Morse was not at the meeting Tuesday. It’s unclear if the council voted against the program, whether or not he would immediately shut it down.
First, a public hearing will be apart of the Public Safety Committee debate, and then the issue would come back to the entire council, perhaps with the pending lawsuit against the mayor still pending.

In the meantime, the program still operates in it’s pilot status while waiting for a final answer on it’s future.

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