Needle deposit boxes depend on location for success

Edmonton tries needle deposit boxes, similar to program in Calgary

Drug users in Edmonton are willing to use boxes set up in the city for them to dispose of used needles, even if they're a little shy about it, officials are finding.

Picking up on a program under way in Calgary for the past two years, Edmonton has set up a couple of bright yellow disposal boxes.

The regional health authority, city hall and police said when they began the program last March they hoped drug users would drop off their used syringes in the receptacles, rather than on the streets or in parks.

Drug users such as Brandy Derenowski like the idea. A user for more than 30 years, she says initiatives like this encourage users not to reuse or share needles.

"I don't believe in the water, I don't believe in the bleach. You use a needle once, get rid of it," she said.

And while programs to keep users from spreading diseases such as HIV and hepatitis among themselves are important, there's another public health concern as well.

"We've had cases of children playing, finding a needle and innocently playing hospital," said Tim Vandenbrink of the Emergency Response Department. "These things have happened in our city."

For the most part, the pilot project is working, organizers say.

"We've collected in excess of 500 needles. We've gotten these needles off the streets and I think that makes it successful," Vandenbrink said.

The large majority of those needles collected went into one of the two boxes. Outreach workers say there's an obvious reason why: one box is in broad view, while the other location more discreet.

"It's very tough within the injection drug using crowd, because what they're doing is illegal. It's very tough to be in the public disposing of needles in a very public place," said Marliss Taylor, of the Street Works needle exchange. "But it's coming. Trust will build."

Police are supporting the program, saying it's important to protect public health.

"We don't condone illegal drug use, but we want to have the syringes disposed of properly. It's a practical issue; it's a safety issue," said police spokesman Wes Bellmore. "We have kids running around in the inner city, we have rescue workers, we have just citizens living downtown who don't want to be in contact with these needles."

Plans are in place for 16 more collections boxes, preferably located inconspicuously.

The program in Calgary has collected more than 25,000 needles in the past two years. Organizers in Edmonton hope to have similar success.