- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers is raising questions about Louisville’s new needle-exchange program - particularly whether the big disparity between clean needles handed out and used needles removed from circulation violates the state’s anti-heroin law.

Stivers has asked state Attorney General Jack Conway for an opinion on whether the law requires an actual exchange of new and dirty needles.

Louisville’s needle-exchange program - the first of its kind in Kentucky - started earlier this month. In its first week of operation, 1,352 clean syringes were distributed and 189 used needles were collected, according to local health officials.

Conway on Tuesday acknowledged his office received the request for an opinion but said he had not yet reviewed Stivers’ letter. Conway declined to be drawn into a discussion about whether Louisville’s program adheres to state law.

“I’m not going to prejudge my opinion,” Conway, the state’s Democratic nominee for governor, said during a campaign appearance in Louisville. “I’m going to have to take a look at his letter and what he’s asking. And then I’ll answer that question in the context of providing an opinion.”

Needle exchanges surfaced as a contentious issue when Kentucky lawmakers worked on the sweeping anti-heroin legislation this year. The final product allows local governments to set up needle-exchange programs. Advocates see the swaps as a way to prevent the spread of diseases and steer drug users toward treatment.

Stivers, a Manchester Republican, said the needle-exchange provision was “thoroughly examined” by lawmakers.

“Many senators took the position that giving out free needles essentially would encourage illegal drug use,” Stivers said. “The exchange provision was part of a compromise, and it was our expectation that it would be an actual exchange, not a new distribution point for needles.”

The question arises as some other communities in the state are considering their own needle-exchange programs.

Dr. Sarah Moyer, Louisville’s interim public health and wellness director, said she believes her city’s program complies with state law.

“We believe that as our program evolves and more people participate and obtain clean needles, more needles will be returned and safely disposed of, thereby keeping them off our streets and playgrounds,” she said.

Four state representatives - three Democrats and one Republican - said Tuesday that early results show Louisville’s program is making “a significant difference.” They, too, expressed confidence the rate of dirty needles turned in will grow as addicts become more comfortable with the effort.

“We emphasized local option in the legislation so that elected officials would have the flexibility they need to decide what medical protocol they feel is most appropriate for their communities,” Democratic Reps. John Tilley, Denny Butler and Joni Jenkins and Republican Rep. David Floyd said in a joint statement.

The four lawmakers are members of an oversight committee monitoring the anti-heroin law’s implementation.

Local health officials anticipated significantly more needles would be distributed than returned in the program’s early weeks, since participants are given up to a week’s supply of new needles, Moyer said. She said it was encouraging that nearly 200 dirty needles had been returned in the first week.

In Louisville, the needles are exchanged in a trailer parked outside the city’s Public Health and Wellness headquarters. The goal is to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C and boost treatment among drug users.

During the first week, 12 of the addicts who visited the program requested and received HIV tests, health officials said.

Kentucky has the nation’s highest rate of acute hepatitis C. In Louisville, the needle exchanges aim to prevent the kind of nightmare occurring a short drive away in Scott County, Indiana, which is grappling with one of the worst HIV outbreaks among injection drug users in decades in the U.S.

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Associated Press Writer Adam Beam in Frankfort, Kentucky, contributed to this report.

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