Packets containing condoms, syringes, cookers, cotton filters, gauze and sterile water necessary to prepare drugs for injection sit in a vending machine located in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2009.

Credit: AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo

For Drug Addicts Risking Hepatitis And HIV, Could Needle Vending Machines Be The Answer?

April 19, 2017

A pilot program based in Las Vegas, Nev. will make the city the first in the nation to dispense clean needles from vending machines, in an effort to combat the spread of hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV. The program hopes to curb needle sharing among drug users, while leading participants on a path towards treatment and recovery. According to medical ethicist Art Caplan, this concept may sound a little strange at first (giving drug addicts free needles?), but it might be the first step on a path to recovery: accepting reality first, changing reality later.

"It used to be pretty weird to think about ... condoms in a vending machine, condoms sold in bathrooms and stuff like that," Caplan said. "This, in public health, is called 'risk reduction.' I'm not trying to say that you should have casual sex with everybody and anybody on earth or that you should use needles, but accepting the reality that some people are going to have a lot of sex, or some people are going to use needles and exchange them and communicate diseases like hepatitis ... I think it's a good idea, I think it's worth trying."

The needle vending program won't be a free-for-all, either. Beginning in May, users will fill out a form and obtain an ID number to track their use. Kits dispensed by the machines will contain clean needles and a deposit box for used needles which can later be disposed of at the machines.

"Basically, you can only use it if you have some sort of access permission," Caplan said. "But anything that gets clean needles out to people who are abusing and addicted ... it's like the first response. Then the next response is to figure out how to to get people not to do that."

Medical ethicist Art Caplan is Head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center and the co-host of the Everyday Ethics podcast. To hear more of his interview with BPR, click on the audio player above.

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