Ottawa's crack pipe exchange program is reducing sharing of the drug paraphernalia in the city, which should help reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C, according to a study released Thursday.

Lynne Leonard and researchers at the University of Ottawa looked at the habits of crack users in the city both before and after the provincial government stepped in to fund the city's controversial crack pipe exchange program in 2008.

They interviewed 250 drug users over an 11-month time frame from March 2007 to May 2008 and found the percentage who reported sharing a used pipe dropped from 64 per cent to 49 per cent. 

si-ottawa-leonard220

Lynne Leonard released the study for the Province of Ontario. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

The percentage of drug users who reported smoking with a previously used pipe also dropped from 65 to 53 per cent, though that could include a pipe they themselves had used.

Leonard says the findings show the harm reduction site is helping to stop the spread of infections, but said with half of crack users still sharing pipes more education is needed.

"This is why it's very important for us to take any new measure we can to prevent any new HIV or Hep C," she said.

Roy Boyd, runs the crack pipe exchange program at the Sandy Hill Community health centre — one of a dozen locations in the city where drug users can exchange used pipes for clean ones. He said addicts are often unaware viruses can spread when crack users with burns on the mouth share their pipes.

"People have said 'okay, I'm not injecting anymore so I've reduced my risk significantly my risk for HIV'," said Boyd.

Boyd says crack is the most popular drug in Ottawa, with an estimated 4,000 street crack users in the city.

Leonard's study found that while more crack users are using new pipes, they are increasingly feeling uncomfortable carrying them and most attribute this feeling to a fear of police.

A fear of arrest may help explain a curious finding of the study: that safe disposal of used crack pipes actually decreased, with a greater percentage of users (from 16 to 20 per cent) throwing them on the street or in an alley after the exchange program returned.

Again, the number one reason for disposing of the glass stems was a fear of being caught by police.