Needle exchanges: Should it be legal?

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A nonprofit in the East Valley gives out clean needles to drug addicts. (Source: korarkar / 123RF Stock) A nonprofit in the East Valley gives out clean needles to drug addicts. (Source: korarkar / 123RF Stock)
George Patterson has clean supplies for drug attacks. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) George Patterson has clean supplies for drug attacks. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
The supplies include clean needles, cotton swabs, alcohol wipes, tourniquets and Narcan. (Source: 3TV) The supplies include clean needles, cotton swabs, alcohol wipes, tourniquets and Narcan. (Source: 3TV)

"It's like having a permanent set of handcuffs on you and you can only go so far."

Ryan is a heroin addict who was willing to share his story about what it's like being addicted to heroin.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Opioid crisis in Arizona]

Megan is a former Valley preschool teacher who is also a heroin addict.

"The hard days are a lot harder when you're using, but when you're on the streets and your priority is drugs but you're starving and people can just look at you and know. It's really hard," she said.

[VIDEO: Volunteers give out clean supplies to drug addicts]

We met both Ryan and Megan at a needle exchange in the East Valley.

Arizona is suffering one of the worst drug epidemics ever.

It's ripping apart families and destroying lives with every hit of heroin.

[VIDEO: Why Are Needle Exchanges Illegal?]

Ryan shows us a picture of he and his mother.

"She's supported me. She's the only one who's really actually supported me and stuck by my side through everything," he said.

Ryan is a crane operator. The first thing he did when his shift ended was come to the needle exchange to get clean supplies. He shoots up heroin five to six times a day.

[VIDEO: Story behind the story: Needle exchange and should it be legal]

"You don't want to struggle. You don't want to fight. You want to go the easy route. It's just how it works," said Ryan as he describes how hard it is to stop using. 

Megan also talked to us about how hard it is to stop.

"Every time I quit and got started again, it's like I picked up right where I left off, if not a little bit lower," she said.  

Megan is a Valley mother hooked on heroin. She was out of needles and showed up looking to get clean supplies.

If you passed Ryan or Megan on the street, you would never suspect they're heroin addicts. They both told 3TV their addiction started with a prescription for painkillers.

[RELATED: Do you have these drugs in your medicine cabinet?]

"It started with a shoulder injury on the job. I was on prescription pain pills for five to six years," Ryan says.

Megan also says her addiction began with a trip to the doctor's office.

"I've been using prescription pain pills. I know, it's the story that everybody has," she said.

Every person we spoke to at this East Valley needle exchange told us it all started with pain meds, and it didn't take long for their lives to unravel.

Megan describes how it happened.

[SLIDESHOW: Two Arizona counties have high opioid prescription rates]

"For about a year, I was abusing my prescription pain pills, snorting them. It was a lot easier to sell them and buy heroin. I was a preschool teacher. I taught for 12 years. I could no longer teach now," she said.

Megan also lost custody of her son.

It's the dark reality for so many of the people at this needle exchange called Shot in the Dark. It's a nonprofit. Their mission is to keep these addicts alive.

They provide users clean needles, tourniquets and life-saving "Narcan." These pop-up sites are currently illegal in Arizona. The supplies given out at a needle exchange site is considered drug paraphernalia, a felony.

But this group of volunteers knows how important clean needles are to stopping the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and other diseases.

[INFOGRAPHIC: Numbers paint grim story in Arizona's opioid crisis]

Megan got sick by reusing dirty needles.

"I am one of those people who has [sic] hep-C and I thankfully found out. Having something like Shot in the Dark is that hope that we can prevent it from spreading to every other person," she said.

Megan's fiancé died in December 2017 from a bacterial infection that was traced back to a dirty needle.

In roughly one hour, we witnessed 93 people show up for clean supplies.

The volunteers conducted a demographics tracking survey on-site. It shows out of 93 heroin addicts who came to the site, only two were homeless.

The majority of addicts were white women under the age of 40.

[MOBILE/APP USERS: Click/tap here to see graphic on opioid deaths in Arizona by age group]

George Patterson has been working with Shot in the Dark for two years.

"There's still more white males and females than any other. That is not something that would've been true 20-30 years ago," he said.

[VIDEO: Breaking the stereotype of heroin addicts]

Patterson says that proves the heroin crisis is growing at an alarming rate with the highly-addictive drug injecting itself into middle and upper-class neighborhoods.

"It's no longer a black or Hispanic drug. It's no longer this backstreet kind of alleyway drug. This is something that's affected people in Chandler, Gilbert and Scottsdale," he said.

[MOBILE/APP USERS: Click/tap here to see graphic on opioid deaths in Arizona by race]

So why is it illegal to give addicts clean, sanitary needles and supplies?

We spoke to Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery about the issue.

"I think the Pollyanna perspective is that you can help someone use drugs safely when the use of those drugs are going to lead to their death," he said.

Montgomery says giving out clean needles will only drive people to their grave faster. He believes needle exchanges are more of a danger than a savior.

[INFOGRAPHICS: Opioid deaths in AZ by age, race, type of opioids]

"What I'm saying is you're already using heroin. Giving someone another needle isn't helping them stop from using heroin," he said.

Volunteers say needle exchanges aren't about getting people sober. It's about harm reduction. It's about reducing the risk of transmitting diseases. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered cases of hepatitis C increased 133 percent from 2004-2014.

Researchers found an increase of 400 percent in people ages 18-29 with injection drug use as the primary risk factor.

Patterson says Shot in the Dark is about keeping them alive, perhaps just long enough, to get them out of the cycle of drug abuse. 

The harsh reality Patterson says is that opioids aren't going away.

"You can find drugs anywhere. They lock up as many many dealers and drug peddlers and users that you can, and there'll always be more. It's in our high schools. It's in our neighborhoods. It's in the nice neighborhoods and the bad neighborhoods. I'm sure someone has drugs in this parking lot right now," he said.

[MOBILE/APP USERS: Click/tap here to see graphic on the opioid epidemic in Arizona]

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