Las Vegas tries a new gamble: vending machine that dispenses clean needles

In this April 12, 2017, photo, Program Manager of Trac-B Exchange Chelsi Cheatom demonstrates how to use a needle vending machine at the Southern Nevada Health District in Las Vegas. Three machines, that will dispense clean needles, will be available for use by the end of May in centers around Las Vegas. It is part of a joint effort between Southern Nevada Health District, Nevada AIDS research and Education Society and Trac-B Exchange. (Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)

LAS VEGAS — Health advocates this week began using a public vending machine to dispense clean, free needles to people addicted to drugs, hoping it will save lives and help curb the spread of diseases such as hepatitis B and C and AIDS.

The machine, which Nevada officials called the first of its kind in the country, went live for four hours Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and again from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Friday at the nonprofit Trac-B Exchange, a storefront syringe service program in a former shopping center about five miles from the Las Vegas Strip.

“I’m excited, because it opens up the door for people to not have to travel as far,” said Trac-B project director Rick Reich, “especially considering some of our participants travel quite a distance to get information and clean, sterile products for prevention.

“You just walk in, pop in a special number" on the vending machine, "and walk out the door.”

Two more machines are scheduled to dispense free needles within the next two weeks at the Community Counseling Center and at Aid for AIDS of Nevada (AFAN), both also in Las Vegas.

The program involves Trac-B Exchange, the Southern Nevada Health District, and the Nevada AIDS Research and Education Society, and aims to discourage needle sharing. The $15,000 machines will be inside the participating facilities, and will operate only during normal business hours.

Besides clean needles, each packet includes two tourniquets, 10 alcohol wipes, 10 syringes, 10 bandages, 10 to 15 cotton pellets, and a disposal container.

On Thursday, among the first to try out the machines was Yolanda, 37, of Las Vegas, who asked not to give her last name because of her heroin addiction.

Yolanda said drugs caused her to lose her job, her home, and parental rights to her three children, ages 9, 12 and 13. Her children were taken by Child Protective Services and adopted by her younger sister.

“Now, I am able to get clean needles to stay healthier, and we’re not spreading diseases around,” she said as Reich assisted her in getting two packets.

Critics fear such programs encourage drug use. Advocates say the opposite is true.

The program meets “drug users ‘where they’re at’, meaning it recognizes that drug use is a part of our world but provides a way to minimize the potential harm,” said Jessica Conner, syringe services coordinator for Nevada. “HIV and hepatitis C can be spread through the sharing of injection equipment [so] it is important to ensure access to clean supplies.

“It has not been shown to increase drug use; in fact, it provides a resource for linkages to care should they decide to seek help for their drug use,” she said.

Jose Benitez of Prevention Point Philadelphia, which runs the only syringe exchange program in Philadelphia, was also on board, because the program can help prevent diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.

“Syringe access programs have been long studied, and there is no evidence that their existence encourages drug use,” he said. “When you consider the cost of treating one person with a lifelong HIV infection is estimated at about $1 million, an eight-cent syringe is a bargain.

“We hope the City of Philadelphia would consider it in the future.”

On Friday, five people came in to sign up and two registered for access cards to swipe though the machine at Trac-B.

“It’s been received real well,” Reich said. “People knew that June 1 was the opening day for the machines, and they came. We’re pleased that this is something that can be the start of bigger and broader use of vending machines for prevention and harm reduction.”