Carlos Padron, 25, mans the front desk. During a lull one afternoon, he shows me an inventory of needles in various lengths and sizes—a 29-inch version is most popular. Next to the needles are boxes containing small packets of sterile water, aluminum cookers, condoms, rubber tourniquets, alcohol pads, and a canteen to store “dirties” until they can be exchanged. When participants visit and request items, he packs them in a brown paper bag.
Padron said a common misconception about exchanges is they give users the tools to get high. The problem, he believes, is most people don’t understand the nature of addiction. “They are going to use no matter what,” he said. He knows of one participant who reused a needle so many times he had to sharpen it on concrete in order to puncture his skin. “Why not give them clean needles and have somewhere they can come where they won’t be judged and they can get help?”
To be a participant, people must register in a database using anonymous initials. They are asked to identify basic demographic information about themselves—according to data provided by IDEA, over 70 percent of its participants are white males and on average, they are 38 years old—as well as what drugs they inject, how often, whether they’re infected with HIV or Hepatitis C, and if they’d like to be tested. Another section asks if they’d like help receiving treatment for HIV, Hepatitis C, or drug dependence. So far, 25 participants have been referred to either drug treatment centers or medically supervised HIV and Hepatitis C treatment.
After registering, they’re given a participant number and ID card that allows staff to track the number of needles they bring in and receive. IDEA is a one-for-one exchange, meaning participants receive as many needles as they trade in—although some visitors drop off needles without asking for any in return. More importantly for participants who live on the street, an ID protects them from being in violation of Florida’s Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act if they’re stopped by police and have dirty needles.
In theory, at least.
While spending the day at IDEA, a participant identified by the initials R.L. walked in with one needle to exchange and no ID. R.L., 50, said he was arrested on Christmas Day and spent a month in prison after being found with needles and a few used bags of heroin. He had lost his ID before being arrested. “I’m homeless, so I have things here and there,” he explained.
Before the passage of the Infectious Disease Elimination Pilot Program in March, needles were classified as drug paraphernalia. However, with the authorization of the pilot, possession of needles—acquired from IDEA—no longer violates the law. R.L.’s baggies were grounds for arrest, but he illustrates the tricky entanglement IDEA, its participants, and law enforcement must navigate: Participants can walk around with needles for the purpose of drug use, but must not have drugs or evidence of drugs if stopped and must always have their ID card. Meanwhile, authorities must learn how to factor these new rules into their daily encounters.