Needle Exchange Not Playing Well in Peoria 5/10/02

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Registered Nurse Beth Wehrman, 48, hardly seems like an ogre, but her harm reduction activities in one of Peoria's tougher neighborhoods have made her a monster in the eyes of some neighbors and local politicians. Although Wehrman had been doing syringe exchanges in the area for more than a year, she recently caught the public eye, and Peoria didn't like what it saw.

On Tuesday, the Peoria city council voted unanimously to ban curbside syringe exchanges, such as Wehrman was doing, within 10 days. The council vote demands that any needle exchange program (NEP) now be conducted in a building in a non-residential area of the city, with the location being subject to prior approval by the chief of police.

The vote came after a brief but nasty offensive against Wehrman and her clients. One commentator in the Peoria Journal Star called her "Peoria's Pied Piper of Heroin" and accused her of "enabling" drug users to avoid "unwanted consequences." Another commentator called Wehrman "a hideous threat" and her NEP "the huckster wagon," adding that if the ordinance resulted in fewer drug users receiving clean needles, "that would be wonderful." The same writer referred to drug users as "neighborhood vermin."

Such discourse makes it clear that the writers are unfamiliar with the bountiful evidence that NEPs are an effective means of controlling the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other diseases (http://www.dogwoodcenter.org/science/10science.html).

Werhman, who runs Lifeguard Harm Reduction Services in the nearby Quad Cities (Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa) wears two hats. On the one hand, she is contracted by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District to provide harm reduction services in Peoria; on the other hand, she is in a partnership with the Chicago Recovery Alliance, under whose auspices she operates the NEP. More than 80 people, mostly African-American, have enrolled in the program in the area, and Wehrman has exchanged 11,000 needles so far this year.

Wehrman told DRCNet she had quietly been doing syringe exchanges in the area for more than a year. "At first, it was door to door with individual users who had heard of me through word of mouth," she said, "but then I was referred to the Old Towne South neighborhood. Until recently, I worked out of an alleyway and had no problems, but the state's attorney was uncomfortable with me being on private property, so I moved to the street."

Even on the street, she attracted little notice, she said, until several weeks ago she offered a stipend to her clients for completing a research survey. "An unexpected result was the influx of people attracted by the payment," she said. "Next week, it was back to normal, but that one day scared the neighborhood and led to the ordinance," she said.

"The ordinance was drafted on last week, filed on Friday, and passed on Tuesday," said Wehrman. "There was no review of the evidence, no look at the research or the science. It was an incredible rush to judgment," she said.

The Peoria ordinance is a retreat from and attack on the Illinois state law allowing NEPS to take place as part of scientific research.

If Wehrman is depressed by recent events, she is also unbowed. "The need continues," she said. "I will continue to go down there, and there is supposed to be a quick meeting with government officials, law enforcement, and the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District so we can move forward on finding a building."

But why is the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District involved in harm reduction in Peoria? "Peoria refused to fund it," said Julie Pryde, director of the Champaign-Urbana district's program, "so I wrote a grant proposal and Beth is funded out of our program."

Both Wehrman and Pryde pointed to the obstructionist role of the Peoria public health office. "The public health authorities won't work with me in Peoria," Wehrman said. "They say the service is needed, but they haven't funded it and they don't want me here," she added. "I had hard numbers, I had outreach work done, I had real people, I had applied for funding in Peoria, but they refused. They even refused to write a letter of introduction so I could discuss the matter with the state's attorney," said Wehrman.

"The health department in Peoria opted out," confirmed Pryde. "We will have to work with other agencies on this," she said.

Both women alluded to a hostile, racially tense atmosphere in Peoria. "This is like a damned Peyton Place, racially segregated, its ridiculous," said Pryde. "When I testified before the city council, I felt like a frog in a cheese grater. Very uncomfortable."

"There is a real smell of racism to this," said Wehrman. "Most of my clients are African-American. They are asking me 'do we not matter?'"

(This week, the Illinois ACLU announced it was filing a racial profiling lawsuit against Illinois state troopers patrolling Interstate-74 between Peoria and Galesburg following an incident in November 2000, where troopers allegedly stopped a vehicle with three young, suited, black men, searched them for drugs and called them "niggers." Illinois law enforcement authorities had found no evidence to reprimand the troopers involved. The troopers found no evidence of any drugs.)

Neither Pryde nor Wehrman are optimistic about future NEPs in Peoria. "In this atmosphere, the city will make it very difficult for anyone to rent to me for an NEP store-front operation," said Wehrman. "That will make it difficult for me to address the needs of the people I work with. I never thought they would take it to this level. Maybe I was too idealistic," she said.

But both are determined to keep fighting. "We will try to build alliances," said Pryde. "We will find a building. In the meantime, Wehrman will continue to go out there, and we expect she'll be harassed, and that will excite the attention of higher-ups. The state of Illinois doesn't want to see ordinances like this, and it doesn't have to be this way. Other public health departments are foursquare behind NEPs," she said.

"When I moved onto the street, I thought I was doing what they wanted," said Wehrman. "It backfired. But we were good neighbors, when we there we cleaned the area up. And I'm no Pied Piper. I went there because I was asked. Now I can't even give them clean needles on their back porches."

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Issue #236, 5/10/02 Editorial: Unsafe Streets | Leading Education, Civil Rights, and Drug Policy Organizations Urge Congress to Repeal HEA Drug Provision in Full | Congressional Drug and Terrorism Expert Says Legalization Could Cut Crime | Needle Exchange Not Playing Well in Peoria | Philadelphia Trying to Quash Open-Air Drug Markets With Massive Police Presence | In Hartford, Neighborhood Drug Fighters and Drug Reformers Inhabit Parallel Universes | Million Marijuana March Hits 200 Cities Worldwide, Major Arrests Only in NYC | Patient's Hunger Strike for Medical Cannabis Enters Fourth Week | Newsbrief: FDA Okays Marijuana Hair Test, Would Detect Up to Three Months | Newsbrief: German Heroin Deaths Decline After Safe Injection Sites Introduced | Newsbrief: South Dakota Hemp Petition Signatures Submitted, Seeds Planted | Newsbrief: Philippine Official Asks End to Vigilante Killings of Drug Dealers, Users | Newsbrief: Canadian Senate Panel Hints at Marijuana Legalization | NPR and Reuters on HEA and SSDP | The Reformer's Calendar
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