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Effort to limit needle distribution in Greenfield met with criticism, tears

  • At a hearing on an ordinance to regulate needle exchange Town Council Vice President Isaac Mass listens to the Greenfield Board of Health's Chairman Dr. William Doyle, alongside new director, Alexeev Jones. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon—

  • At a hearing on an ordinance to regulate needle exchange, Town Council Vice President Isaac Mass speaks to the Appointments and Ordinances Committee, headed by William Childs, left, and Karen “Rudy” Renaud, right. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon



Recorder Staff
Wednesday, September 13, 2017

GREENFIELD — In a tense evening that would see emotional and at times tear-inducing pleas by people in the local recovery community, a proposal to limit who can distribute needles will be passed onto the Town Council without an endorsement from some public officials.

The full council, which will meet Sept. 20, is unlikely to hear the ordinance, Town Council Vice President Isaac Mass said, although other councilors present at Wednesday’s Appointments and Ordinances Committee meeting were less sure that will be the case.

Mass has attempted to push forward the ordinance before the Board of Health, which would not vote on it, and in front of the Appointments and Ordinances Committee, which would give a negative recommendation to the full council.

A needle exchange in Greenfield, run by Tapestry Health, has stalled after earning approval from the Board of Health in Aug. 2016.

Mayor William Martin and Mass have both in the past come out against the program. As Mass consistently reiterated that the ordinance was not drafted to limit Tapestry Health in any way, he would receive the support from one person of all Wednesday night, Precinct 1 Town Councilor Verne Sund.

“You can’t just encourage them by giving them more needles,” Sund said about those struggling with addiction. “You need to make sure that you follow up and be stern with them. I’m 69 years old and I saw a lot of friends pass away from it.”

Yet Mass would receive heavy backlash from members of the recovery community and public officials:

his ordinance is akin to bartenders telling they don’t have to wash their glasses to customers,” said Annie Parkinson, member of the Opioid Task Force and regional coordinator for the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery (MOAR). "Would you drink out of a dirty glass?” She paused, taking a long look at Mass, waiting for an answer before giving her own. “No.”

At-Large Councilor Karen “Rudy” Renaud would wrap up her verdict with a terse statement.

“I’m not just voting no,” Renaud said. “I’m a strong opponent of this.”

And earlier in the evening, Board of Health Chairman Dr. William Doyle talk about the “agonizing” discussions the board had had, dating back to Sept. 2015, on gathering information from health experts on the value of needle exchanges. Doyle left Mass with a handful of words on his proposal.

“It’s been an eye opener,” Doyle said. “It’s kind of like ‘not in our backyard.’ I’m disappointed.”

Protection for all

The ordinance was drafted by Mass in part in response to a state Supreme Court ruling from June of this year that allows for any individual to distribute clean needles, citing a public health concern. Before, typically a town’s Board of Health had to approve someone to run a needle exchange program.

He drew the point that children in the community could be at a serious health risk if they were to find a used needle in the town, particularly one with the potentially fatal fentanyl, a synthetic form of heroin, still on it.

“The substance-using population is a population that needs protection, but they are not the only population that needs protection,” Mass said in his final statement of the evening. “What this ordinance tries to do is to strike a balance.”

Tapestry Health’s Liz Whynott, director of its services to prevent the spread of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C, looked to educate public officials about what the syringe access program does: It distributes clean needles, whether that be at a physical site or through one of its employees who go into the community, and then develops a relationship with users, offering education on how to not only prevent an overdose, but also how to seek recovery.

“Consider what we can do to save lives in our community and part of doing that is having access to clean needles that can be safely disposed,” said Opioid Task Force Coordinator Debra McLaughlin.

McLaughlin also said that the executive committee of the Opioid Task Force, which includes register probate John Merrigan and the sheriff of the county Christopher Donelan, met before the meeting and decided that they would oppose any positive recommendation of this ordinance.

Board member of Tapestry Health Steve Jones, a resident of Florence, pointed out that this proposal could stifle the distribution and collection of needles for those with diabetes in town, although Mass debated that point.

Doyle, the head of the Board of Health, said the potential issues with this ordinance for diabetics could be a “deal-breaker” for him. The health board, which was missing a member Wednesday, did not vote one way or the other for a recommendation, because, Doyle said, without the full board, he wouldn’t feel comfortable making a formal decision.

Task force member Parkinson, between tears, told the story of her brother, someone who she said built malls and bought new cars every couple of years, is on the streets because of addiction, and she doesn’t know where he is.

“Woe be the person who doesn’t reach out a hand to him if they find him,” Parkinson said. “We can’t be building fences. ... You can’t come out of addiction without a connection.”

“I don’t get the world,” she continued. “I don’t get this ordinance that you’re proposing. I just don’t.”

Mass would eventually respond at the ordinance meeting:

“I am someone who has family dealing with addiction. I am someone who works everyday with clients who are in recovery and actively using,” Mass, a lawyer, said. “I know exactly what each and everyone of you is talking about.”

Sund, who would be the lone voice to defend Mass in the evening, referenced his years of service in the military, noting friends who have died of addiction. He said they would be offered clean needles, but “that didn’t stop them,” and “they still went and did it.” Sund added that, like when you are child and did something wrong, “you get a good spanking.”

“There’s a penalty for everything,” Sund said. “If I’m going down Main Street going 50 miles an hour I’m going to get a ticket whether I’m a town councilor or a regular guy. There needs to be some kind of discipline.”

You can reach
Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264