Prof. Ricky Bluthenthal at the Keck School of Medicine's Dean's Distinguished Lecturer Series.

Prof. Ricky Bluthenthal at the Keck School of Medicine’s Dean’s Distinguished Lecturer Series.

Prof. Ricky Bluthenthal talked about the research behind needle-exchange programs during a forum at the Cato Institute on Jan. 15. And he had plenty of heavy hitters with him.

The event, held in Washington, D.C., was recorded live. Watch it:

Bluthenthal is a professor of Preventive Medicine in the Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. About a year ago he was appointed associate dean of the newly created Office for Social Justice.

Keynote remarks were delivered by the Surgeon General of the U.S., Vice Adm. Jerome M. Adams. Bluthenthal praised Adams’s endorsement of needle-exchange programs, but wanted to make sure the discussion included the health risks to those who use drugs: “I think we need to really put them at the center of the programming, and not be satisfied with policy responses that don’t put their health outcomes first.”

The panel in which Bluthenthal took part also featured Congressman Tony Rivero, a Republican from Arizona, and was moderated by Dr. Jeffrey A. Singer, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.

Singer and the libertarian-leaning think tank endorse the idea of needle-exchange programs, in which IV drug users bring in used syringe needles and trade them for clean ones. Drug users who inject themselves with needles that they or others have already face a much higher risk of contracting blood-transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and infective carditis, an infection of the endocardium, the lining inside the chambers of the heart.

A study Bluthenthal co-authored in 2000 showed that, in several cities that had exchange programs, there were significant reductions in needle sharing. In Baltimore, sharing dropped from 22 percent to 8 percent within six months. His study in 2007 linked making syringes more available to lower HIV risk, with no corresponding increase of unsafe syringe disposal.

“Needle exchange programs work, because the people who use them, it gives them stuff that they need,” Bluthenthal says. “People share syringes because there’s a scarcity of syringes. There’s no value in sharing syringes; it’s not like unprotected sex. And so once you give people what they need, then they’re able to protect themselves.”

Adams also favors wider availability of needle exchanges, as does Rep. Rivero. Such programs are not legal in Rivero’s home state of Arizona, nor in 20 other states. A common argument among critics of exchanges is that they encourage drug use and increase the likelihood of needle “litter” – drug users leaving them in the community, where anyone, including children, could find them.

Adams has said the science shows clean needles prevent the spread of disease and direct addicts into treatment programs. “I can’t tell Phoenix or Arizona what to do,” he told The Arizona Republic last year, “but it is my job to say, ‘Here’s your data and here are some tools that might help you improve your outcomes.’ ” 

-By Landon Hall