At least two members of a City Council committee examining Portland’s needle exchange policy said Thursday that they support having the city move away from a restrictive distribution policy to a needs-based approach endorsed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

Councilors Belinda Ray and Mark Dion said they support allowing needle exchange staff to distribute more clean syringes to help prevent infection during the epidemic. Under the city’s current one-for-one system, clients receive one new needle in exchange for a used one. Portland’s exchange is the only one in Maine with that restriction.

Portland has come under pressure for sticking to its system after Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order easing restrictions on needle exchanges statewide.

In December, the federal CDC came out in support of a needs-based system that allows intravenous drug users to receive more than one needle at a time. The CDC said this approach has been shown to reduce new HIV and viral hepatitis infections among drug users.

Ray and Dion stated their support during a Thursday workshop before the Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee attended by Gordon Smith, Maine’s opioid response director, and Whitney Parrish, director of advocacy and communications for the Health Equity Alliance.

The committee took no action, but the issue is likely to surface again in light of Mills’ April 2020 executive order that relaxed needle-exchange restrictions. It’s not clear whether she would support retaining the eased restrictions after the pandemic ends, but Smith said that is a possibility.


Maine has 10 state-sanctioned and regulated needle exchanges. Portland’s is the state’s only municipally run program.

Portland’s program operates 40 hours a week, seven days a week, at two locations, which staff believes is enough to meet clients’ needs. The city also has a mobile syringe-service program serving homeless encampments.

Ray praised the city for taking on the responsibility, but said given the state’s opioid epidemic it may be time to amend its exchange system.

“I really do hope we can move as quickly as we can knowing it is imperative that we recognize the number of people being placed in harm’s way by these practices,” Ray said, adding that an ongoing city review of its needle exchange program, in light of CDC and WHO recommendations, may not be necessary.

“I don’t want us to use staff and the public finding discarded needles in public spaces as a way to go against best practices,” Ray said. “The city of Portland has performed above and beyond in so many ways and our work has to be lauded. But we need to look critically at what we are doing.”

Dion, a former county sheriff and state legislator, said he wouldn’t hesitate to support the change.


“I’ve done the research. I’ve been out on the streets and I kind of get it,” Dion told his colleagues “I think a needs-based approach makes sense.”

But city staff who attended the workshop said needle litter in public spaces has become a health concern. Ethan Hipple, director of Parks, Recreation and Facilities, said park staff have been jabbed by discarded needles while doing routine maintenance on several occasions.

“We have seen the number of needles in public spaces increase,” Hipple said. “Our goal has been to make our parks safe and welcoming for everybody, but sometimes we struggle with this issue.”

Hipple said Deering Oaks is a hotspot for discarded needles, but other open spaces such as the Eastern Prom and Harbor Park have been affected as well. Parents have complained about finding discarded needles in playgrounds. Bus stops are another dumping zone.

“I’ve probably picked up, conservatively speaking, more than 5,000 needles in the past six years,” said Robert Wassick, training and safety administrator for Portland Public Works. “It’s a real problem.”

The Health Equity Alliance, or HEAL, operates needle exchange programs in Bangor, Ellsworth, Machias, Calais and Rockland.

Parrish said HEAL has seen that its as-needed needle exchanges saves lives and reduce needle litter. Their system builds trust instead of stigmatizing substance use disorder.

“We give people what they need when they need it,” Parrish told the council.

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