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Some Needle-Exchange Counselors Fall Victim to Heroin Use

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Needle-exchange programs have been credited with saving many lives by preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS among injection-drug users, but some counselors at the harm-reduction programs have been fatally tempted by easy availability of heroin, the Wall Street Journal reported Jan. 9.

At least five workers at harm-reduction programs in New York and San Francisco have died of overdoses, including the founders of two needle-exchange programs. The victims included Pete Morse, 36, a 10-year veteran counselor who died in 2007 of an overdose of heroin, alcohol and cocaine, and John Watters, a researcher and advocate who fatally overdosed in 1995.

Jon Zibbell, a Skidmore College assistant professor and founder of a drug-users coalition in Massachusetts, called staff overdoses a “huge problem.”

“We prevent [overdoses] among our clients,” he said. “So we should try to prevent them among our workers.” Program staff typically get paid little money to work in harsh environments. Training can be minimal, and some programs hire active or former drug users. Other workers may learn about drug use on the job.

Morse’s family said he learned to shoot heroin only after working in harm reduction, but said he was depressed and that his workplace was not to blame for the fatal overdose. Needle-exchange supporters note that only a small percentage of workers overdose, and that overdoses also occur in abstinence-oriented programs.

Still, Kirk Read, a coworker of Morse’s, said his friend’s death “punctured the illusion that knowledge can protect you.”

Some see the overdoses as an argument against harm reduction, while others say the cases show why more money should be put into training and supporting addiction workers.

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