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Idaho employee printed pamphlets for needle exchange program on how to use illicit drugs

The Boise Police Department seized drug paraphernalia and electronics from the Idaho Harm Reduction Project’s offices in a raid. A state employee was involved in printing pamphlets that detailed step-by-step instructions on how to use illicit drugs.  (ALEX BRIZEE/Idaho Statesman)
Alex Brizee Idaho Statesman

A state employee printed pamphlets for the Idaho Harm Reduction Project that detailed step-by-step instructions on how to use several drugs, including methamphetamine and crack cocaine, before the nonprofit’s offices were raided by police, according to documents obtained by the Idaho Statesman.

The Idaho Harm Reduction Project, which offered a needle exchange program, was propelled into the public eye after the Boise Police Department raided the organization’s Boise and Caldwell offices, seizing packaged drug paraphernalia as part of an investigation into their distribution. Boise police have declined to clarify what officers found in the raid. No employees have been charged or cited with a crime as of Wednesday.

Shortly after the raid, the Statesman reported on a video of Harm Reduction Project employees, in which they admitted during a conference last year to illegally distributing the packaged drug items — which included snorting kits, bubble pipes that are used for methamphetamine, and heroin pipes, commonly referred to as hammers, according to a video recording of reviewed by the Statesman.

At least three pamphlets that contained instructions on how to safely use crystal meth, crack cocaine and “hot rails,” a method of snorting methamphetamine vapors through the nose, were printed by the Department of Health and Welfare for the Harm Reduction Project, spokesperson Greg Stahl told the Statesman by email. The pamphlets were provided to the Statesman by Stahl upon request.

The Idaho Press first reported on the pamphlets.

Needle exchange programs typically provide people with a way to obtain clean needles, not other types of drug paraphernalia or instructions on the use of other drugs. Idaho’s law on the program legalized the needles, but not pipes or other items found to be distributed in the packages.

The pamphlets were created on Feb. 21, 2023. Just a few weeks earlier, the Harm Reduction Project posted on Instagram that the organization was launching “injection alternative kits,” which included supplies for safer smoking, snorting and boofing, a way of ingesting drugs through the rectum.

Stahl said the pamphlets were printed “upon request, and without review,” and that “internal policies for this work were not followed.” He declined to identify who printed the documents but said they were created by an employee of the syringe services program.

“Having discovered these documents, department leadership does not support their printing or condone their use,” Stahl said. “If leadership had known, they would not have been approved.”

Gov. Brad Little tapped Health and Welfare in mid-February to conduct an internal review of its contracts with the Idaho Harm Reduction Project following the raid. The internal investigation is expected to include a public report and be completed in the “coming days,” Stahl said.

Several employees from the Idaho Harm Reduction Project, including the organization’s executive director, Marjorie Wilson, did not respond to requests for comment from the Statesman. The organization posted on its website that “due to unforeseen circumstances,” it hasn’t provided services since its offices were raided.

The organization offered a variety of services, including the legal needle exchange program and medical services such as STI, HIV and Hepatitis C testing. It also provided Narcan, a medication that can reverse opioid overdoses.

“Idaho Harm Reduction Project has always endeavored to support safer, healthier communities through evidence-based programming, education, testing, and other services in accordance with Idaho law,” the post said. “We have proudly done all of our public health work in the light of day with approval from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.”

“Harm Reduction saves lives, and it is with heavy hearts that we share the news of our closure,” the post continued.

Idaho repeals syringe exchange program

Within a week of the raid, Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, introduced a bill to end the needle exchange program entirely. Little signed the bill last week, which will cause the state’s nine syringe programs to shutter their doors or stop providing needle exchange services by July 1.

The passage of Idaho’s Syringe and Needle Exchange Act in 2019 allowed people to obtain clean needles through the exchange program, but that law doesn’t apply to pipes — despite research that points toward smoking being a safer alternative. The law also didn’t decriminalize needles as paraphernalia, which means people can still be charged with possession of drug paraphernalia if they are found with syringes.

In March, Vander Woude while presenting the bill on the House floor said the Harm Reduction Project was “well beyond the law,” citing the Statesman’s reporting on several employees admitting that they were distributing drug paraphernalia “outside the boundaries of the law.”

“I would urge your green light on this: We repeal the needle exchange and start looking at a better system,” Vander Woude said, adding that he doesn’t believe the program functioned properly.

Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, argued on the Senate floor in late March that the syringe exchange program was enacted as an attempt to decrease overdose deaths and reduce the spread of infection. Idaho’s overdose deaths have been on the rise since at least 2018, reaching a high in 2022 of 381 deaths, according to Health and Welfare data. In 2023, reported overdose deaths declined to 321.

Wintrow said lawmakers should be looking at specific problems within the syringe programs instead of repealing the entire act. “We can mitigate problems that we’re discovering, but to repeal the whole thing I think is pretty harmful,” she said.

Outside ‘boundaries of the law’: On video, Idaho Harm staff discuss drug-item giveaways

‘No evidence’ agency bought drug paraphernalia

Health and Welfare Interim Director Dean Cameron told the Legislature’s budget-setting panel, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, in early March there was “no evidence whatsoever” the agency authorized the purchase of any drug paraphernalia or illegal substance based on its invoices, and added that officials were still reviewing over 6,000 emails.

Stahl declined to comment on whether Health and Welfare discovered the pamphlets while reviewing emails and said that several questions sent by the Statesman would be addressed in Cameron’s report to the governor. Little asked Health and Welfare to determine which employees, if any, knew about the drug paraphernalia, Cameron said during the March meeting.

“We have been digging into that very diligently,” Cameron said.

Cameron also identified some areas that Health and Welfare could improve on. He said during the committee meeting that the agency doesn’t always do a risk assessment before signing a contract with a new organization, and that officials will make an effort to provide more detailed invoices moving forward.

Cameron told the committee that Health and Welfare provided needles, containers to dispose of needles, alcohol wipes and wound care kits to the programs, which he said under the current policy “seems to be appropriate.”

“The department does not condone or support the use of illegal drugs or those who profit from it,” Cameron said in a news release announcing the investigation. “Substance use has a pervasive and devastating impact on Idaho families and children. The department supports all efforts to protect Idahoans from the impacts of illicit drug use.”