D.C. group gives addicts clean needles, naloxone

Gerald Sabb, a community health nurse at Bread for the City, shows a vial of Narcan. (WTOP/Mike Murillo)

WASHINGTON – Heroin users play a deadly game every time they shoot up, but still many struggle with the addiction and many are afraid to get help. There is an organization that is trying to reach those addicts and help them use responsibly.

Bread for the City has been in Southeast D.C. for 40 years, and they are known for offering food, clothing, legal services and medical help for Washingtonians who can’t afford it. They also work with heroin addicts in their medical clinic.

“You start to recognize that they start to take responsibility for their health [because] they are coming in and they are like, ‘I do want to use clean. I want to make sure that I don’t transmit this disease that I have,'” says Kelly Protzko, a lab technician with the group. “A lot of them– yes, they are addicts, and they come in, they know they are going to use regardless so they want to use safely so we give them the needles for that,” she says.

They do that through a needle exchange program, in which users come in and trade out their used needles for new ones. “We also give them, safe clean equipment that they need to use,” Protzko says, including sterile water, cookers, cotton, band aids and rubbing alcohol.

Bread for the City is also a distribution point for Naloxone, a drug that when administered can stop an overdose. “We discuss with the patient, overdose prevention techniques, how to recognize an overdose, Naloxone administration, how to administer Naloxone itself and education about D.C.’s Good Samaritan Laws,” Protzko says.

They offer users a pouch with the Naloxone, also known as Narcan, and encourage them to teach others around them how to use it, in case they need to be given the drug. “We actually give two vials of the Narcan because of the return of overdose phenomenon .. after 15 to 20 minutes the Narcan is gone, you have to give to them again,” says Gerald Sabb, a community health nurse at Bread for the City.

He works closely with addicts and says in his opinion heroin usage is up in the district. “It’s getting really, really bad.”

From July 1 of 2012 to June 30 of 2013, the clinic enrolled 365 people in their needle exchange program, they exchanged 11,605 sterile syringes for 8,625 used needles.

Why the increase in heroin users? A successful crackdown prescription pain medication abuse may be a factor. Protzko says some patients have told her “the reason they started using heroin because they couldn’t afford to pay for the Oxycontin.”

Bread for the City also educates users about D.C.’s Good Samaritan Law, which offers limited legal protection to users who call emergency services in the event of an overdose. Sabb says not all addicts know about it.

“The DC Good Samaritan Law says that you will not be charged. Even if you are on probation or parole, you won’t be remanded back to jail as a result of that.”

Sabb says he has talked to individuals who watched others overdose and did nothing. “They’ve told me stories, I’ve heard stories where someone has overdosed and they left them there,” he says.

D.C.’s law is the only one of its kind in the area, Virginia and Maryland do not have laws protecting a drug user who may call 911 for an overdose. There is though a Good Samaritan bill is making its way through the Maryland Senate.

Sabb says Good Samaritan laws are important when it comes to getting overdose victims the help they need. He says addicts shouldn’t be “afraid to actually call [911] when he or she feels that their partner is in an actual overdose.”

There may be some who think an organization shouldn’t help individuals with a habit that is illegal, but to that Sabb says “If you understand the disease of addiction, just a little bit, a little bit more, you would change.”

“People say well it’s a choice … but if you look at the genetic predisposition that has a strong correlation between an individual who becomes a substance abuser,” Sabb says. He says many users grew up in homes surrounded by others taking drugs and that is all they know.

Protzko agrees, “A lot of them aren’t happy with who they are right now. They’re really ashamed and they’re upset and they’re really appreciative to us for talking to them like they are people.”

As the organization continues to help users and encourage them to stop all together, Sabb says the increase in heroin laced with other substances is worrisome.

“Heroin is being cut with other things like fentanyl and morphine, which are very strong pain meds,” Sabb says.

The Justice Department recently announced plans to crack down on heroin distribution, making the drug harder to get on the streets. Sabb says users may soon be looking for alternatives such as one that hasn’t made it to the east coast yet. It’s called desomorphine, known on the streets as “krokodil.”

“It’s a lot worse than heroin, in terms of what it does to the human body.” Experts say it eats away at skin tissue, leading many to refer to it as a “flesh eating” drug.

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