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Tom Olsen, Forum News Service, Published September 05 2013

New location sought for needle exchange

DULUTH – A needle exchange program won’t be opening at the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment in downtown Duluth as originally planned.

Gary Olson, CEO of the nonprofit treatment center, said he is seeking a different location for the program because of concerns brought forth by the building’s owner, A&L Properties.

“Hopefully we’ll find another location by the end of the month,” he said. “We need to get this up and running as soon as possible.”

Rob Link, principal partner of A&L Properties, did not return calls Tuesday and Wednesday seeking comment.

The program, operated by the Rural AIDS Action Network, was scheduled to open its doors this week. Housed in CADT’s building at 26 E. Superior St., the program was going to offer free syringe and needle exchanges out of a Michigan Street entrance.

However, several community leaders, including Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, Mayor Don Ness and several city councillors, questioned the downtown location and its proximity to Lake Place Park and the temporarily closed head shop Last Place on Earth.

City Councillor Linda Krug, who was critical of the location, said she was relieved when told by a reporter that the program would not be opening there.

“It’s music to my ears,” she said. “As I said before, there is quite a bit of evidence that needle exchanges are positive because they help curtail the transmission of AIDS and hepatitis C, but that downtown location really wasn’t good placement.”

Supporters say the program, the first of its kind in Duluth, is intended to reduce the public health risk by getting dirty syringes and needles off the street. Superior, Wis., has been home to a similar program since 2005.

Olson said there has been misunderstanding among officials who have criticized the program and its location. The program is expected to serve only about 150 clients a year, he said, and not all of them are illegal drug users.

While he anticipates the program opening fairly soon in another location, Olson said it is disappointing that it will not be in the CADT building, where many people are already getting treatment for substance abuse issues.

“Some of the other options we have are less desirable from our perspective,” he said. “We lose the advantage of getting them in the door right where they have access to treatment. It’s unlikely that another location will offer that same connection.”

Charles Hempeck, executive director of St. Cloud-based RAAN, said he is still committed to partnering with CADT on the program, no matter the location.

The change of venue is simply a bump in the road, not a deterrent, he said.

“I certainly understand the apprehensiveness in light of the Last Place on Earth,” Hempeck said. “We want to be sensitive to what the community is going through there. But I think once the community understands the purpose of the syringe exchange program, people will see what an asset it’ll be to the community.”

Program officials and critics both said they are open to conversation about a new location.

“Hopefully, this time we can have discussion about a location that works for everyone,” Ramsay said.

Olson said he is willing to hear input from community leaders, but acknowledged that the program may be somewhat controversial wherever it goes.

“I don’t know that there is a location that everyone will find acceptable,” he said. “There’s always the ‘not in my backyard’ syndrome.”

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