Needle vending machines are the future of helping drug users, Las Vegas bets

Needle exchange programs help drug users prevent disease.
Needle exchange programs help drug users prevent disease. AP

Most vending machines are full of things — like soda and candy — that can contribute to health problems. But Las Vegas is hoping its new vending machines can help its drug using-population avoid additional ones.

By the end of May, Las Vegas will have debuted three new vending machines that dispense clean needles. They hope to keep drug users who get their fix via syringe from contracting diseases by reusing needles that could carry bloodborne infections. HIV, hepatitis C and other diseases can be transmitted when needles are used repeatedly.

The machines resemble an average vending machine but will instead dispense kits of clean needles and disposal containers for used ones. There will also be wound cleaning and safe sex kits. The machines will be available in three separate organizations that all work with drug users.

“Having access to clean syringes is a harm-reduction approach that’s going to allow people to protect themselves against getting communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C,” Chelsi Cheatom, program manager for Trac-B Exchange, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Trac-B Exchange provides community consulting focused on preventing infectious diseases and safer alternatives to syringe use and disposal.

To gain access to the needle vending machines, users will register to receive a card that will allow them two kits each week.

According to the Harm Reduction Coalition, needle exchange programs lower health care costs. A sterile syringe costs as little as 97 cents and could save between $3,000 and $5,000 per HIV infection prevented. Intravenous drug users have also seen a decrease in hepatitis C infection following the spread of needle exchanges. Treatment for that disease can cost $25,000 to $30,000 per person. Programs that provide sterile needles can also provide other healthcare services and counseling to a population that can be uninsured.

Last year, Congress partially lifted the federal ban on funds for syringe exchange programs. It had orginally been repealed in 2009 after being in place for more than 20 years, but the Republican House put it back in place in 2011. Currently, federal funds can’t be used for needles themselves but can be used for other aspects of needle exchange programs, like staff salaries and counseling services.