Nova Scotia

Mainline Needle Exchange hands out more needles but rations some supplies

At Mainline Needle Exchange, demand for clean needles is up. But uncertain funding levels had led the service to ration some safe-use drug supplies.

'More people at risk of catching HIV or Hep C,' says Mainline outreach worker

Norman English has been clean for three weeks. He calls Mainline Needle Exchange a 'saviour.' (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

At Mainline Needle Exchange, demand for clean needles is up. Staff will hand out a million syringes to injection drug users this year — a record number for the program which serves the Halifax-area and communities throughout the mainland.

That's not all the harm-reduction program provides: Mainline also gives out supplies such as glass stems, used as crack pipes, tubes of sterile water, and Stericups, heat-resistant spoons known on the street as cookers.

'Mainline was a saviour'

The safe injection supplies are items that Norman English, 47, has come to rely on over the last five months. He's battling an addiction to opiates which he shoots up to get a faster high. A recent blood test confirmed he was disease-free.

"To me, Mainline was a saviour," says the Halifax man. "They helped me out big time."

Stericups and tubes of sterile water are among the rationed items at Mainline. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

The increased demand for free needles and drug supplies is covered by Mainline's operating budget of $280,000. That's the same amount provided last year by the Department of Health and Wellness. But last year, the district health authorities came through with an extra $120,000. The extra cash allowed Mainline to maintain services such as staying open seven days a week.

New funding body

But things are different this year. Mainline director Diane Bailey says the service needs an extra $220,000 to maintain current services and meet the growing demand. Mainline served 26,474 contacts in 2015-2016. That's a 42 per cent increase from 15,323 served in 2005-2006.

She says the Nova Scotia Health Authority will become the primary funding body for Mainline and there's no guarantee that the increase will be approved.

So she has taken preemptive moves on budget.

Fewer road trips

Since late May, Mainline's outreach vans have been making fewer trips. Instead of road trips every two weeks to Pictou, Truro, Amherst, Shubenacadie, Bridgewater, and the Annapolis Valley, those communities get visits from the van on a monthly basis.

And it now rolls into Yarmouth every other month instead of monthly. The hours of part-time staff who operated the vans were reduced, forcing the one full-time worker to get behind the wheel.

The road trips are busy. A drug user who shows up at the van can have as many clean needles as they want, some pick up as many as 2,000 to share with others. Outreach worker James Williams says he will hand out anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 needles in one day.

Outreach worker James Williams hands out glass stems used as crack pipes to promote safer drug use. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

But other safe injection supplies, such as crack pipes and cookers, which are more costly than needles, are rationed. Only two are handed out even though it's not unusual for an addict to go through 10 a day. 

'We're falling behind'

With fewer of those supplies given out, the likelihood of a user being infected with HIV or Hepatitis C by sharing dirty tools increases.

"We're [into] harm reduction, but we're falling behind," says Williams.

More people are being served and more needles are being given out, he says. "But the other supplies that they need to go with that are usually what gets cut in numbers.

"More people [are] at risk of catching HIV or Hep C," Williams says.

In the last five months, 135 Mainline clients have been referred for methadone treatment to clinics such as Direction 180. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

English says that even during his worst drug binges, he's always tried to practice safer drug use. He's concerned about friends who may not be as careful. 

"You get in a circle of people using and the next thing you know, he's jonesing, wants a hit," says English. "He's using someone else's and he's got a disease, or a chance of [one]. Yah, it's a worry."

More drug users getting clean

There is some good news. More injection drug users are trying to get clean. From April 1 to Sept. 6, Mainline referred 135 clients for methadone treatment.

That's a big increase, 90 clients were recommended for methadone programs in all of last year.

English is one of Mainline's clients who've made the move to methadone. He's been clean for three weeks and while he says it's a daily struggle against addiction, he says he's hopeful. And grateful to Mainline.

"Yah, they were there to help me, give me the stuff to do the drug, but they were also there to guide me to come out of the drug," says English. 

"I would honestly say if it wasn't for Mainline, I would be in jail today."

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