Miami’s fledgling needle-exchange program — approved by lawmakers with the goal of helping addicts stay disease free — has been praised by health authorities and the county’s top police departments.
Just two months ago, one Miami police officer spoke glowingly about the program at a press conference called to tout its early successes.
So it was a surprise when the program reported this week that a Miami police commander and three others officers showed up at the Overtown facility to proclaim that the department didn’t support needle exchange and “would continue to arrest our participants.”
“I am so disappointed in the Miami Police Department and Commander [Nicole] Davis for continued harassment of our participants,” Dr. Hansel Tookes, the program’s founder, wrote in an email on Tuesday to the state attorney’s office.
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“When our participants are arrested while living within the confines of the law, their civil rights are violated.”
But two days after the email was sent, the program and the police talked it out —and the department’s legal unit will be issuing a bulletin to patrol officers explaining the needle exchange.
Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes on Wednesday reiterated the department’s support, stressing that the needle-exchange project was addressing an important health issue in Miami.
“We’re very supportive of the program,” Llanes said, adding he hopes it will grow to offer more services for addicts in need of treatment.
Davis said Thursday that there was “clearly a miscommunication,” and that one of her officers had only explained they had no choice but to arrest users if they were involved in crimes.
“We don’t stop people just because they are getting needles,” Davis said, adding: “I never said we don’t support the program.”
Davis, who is commander of Overtown’s neighborhood-relations unit and a member of the county’s Opioid Task Force, characterized the encounter as brief and “a friendly exchange.”
Tookes, on Thursday, was satisfied that the program was getting support.
“I think it’s awesome they are saying publicly they support the program — and are going to issue an advisory to their officers,” he said.
The IDEA Program opened in November in a neighborhood hardest hit by the epidemic of heroin and fentanyl ravaging the streets of Miami-Dade.
The rise in illegal fentanyl and its synthetic cousins, much of it trafficked in from secret labs in China, has been particularly deadly in Miami-Dade. According to the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office, there were a staggering 279 overdose deaths involving variants of fentanyl last year.
The program was created after years of lobbying efforts resulted in the Infectious Disease Exchange Act, a pilot needle-exchange program aimed at curbing the spread of HIV among addicts. Its founder was Tookes, a University of Miami physician and researcher.
At the facility, 1636 NW Seventh Ave., users can turn in dirty needles for clean ones. And they must answer questions, all anonymously, about their backgrounds, when they first used and how often they use — data that will be analyzed, researched and turned into a quarterly report.
The program also hands out Narcan, a drug that saves the lives of users who are overdosing on opioids, as well as condoms and other supplies commonly needed on the streets.