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Miami’s fledgling needle-exchange program — approved by lawmakers with the goal of helping addicts stay disease free — has been praised by health authorities and the county’s top police departments.
Just two months ago, one Miami police officer spoke glowingly about the program at a press conference called to tout its early successes.
So it was a surprise when the program reported this week that a Miami police commander and three others officers showed up at the Overtown facility to proclaim that the department didn’t support needle exchange and “would continue to arrest our participants.”
“I am so disappointed in the Miami Police Department and Commander [Nicole] Davis for continued harassment of our participants,” Dr. Hansel Tookes, the program’s founder, wrote in an email on Tuesday to the State Attorney’s Office.
“When our participants are arrested while living within the confines of the law, their civil rights are violated.”
Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes, informed of the email on Wednesday, declined to comment on the allegations about the visit from officers. But he reiterated the department’s support, stressing that the needle-exchange project was addressing an important health issue in Miami.
“We’re very supportive of the program,” Llanes said, adding he hopes it will grow to offer more services for addicts in need of treatment.
The incident happened at the IDEA Program, which opened in November in a neighborhood hardest hit by the epidemic of heroin and fentanyl ravaging the streets of Miami-Dade.
Davis is commander of Overtown’s neighborhood-relations unit. She is also a member of the county’s Opioid Task Force, which recently concluded meetings and will present its findings in July. Davis could not be reached for comment.
The rise in illegal fentanyl and its synthetic cousins, much of it trafficked in from secret labs in China, has been particularly deadly in Miami-Dade. According to the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office, there were a staggering 279 overdose deaths involving variants of fentanyl last year.
The program was created after years of lobbying efforts resulted in the Infectious Disease Exchange Act, a pilot needle-exchange program aimed at curbing the spread of HIV among addicts. Its founder was Tookes, a University of Miami physician and researcher.
At the facility, 1636 NW Seventh Ave, users can turn in dirty needles for clean ones. And they must answer questions, all anonymously, about their backgrounds, when they first used and how often they use — data that will be analyzed, researched and turned into a quarterly report.
The program also hands out Narcan, a drug that saves the lifes of users who are overdosing on opiods, as well as condoms and other supplies commonly needed on the streets.
In April, an array of health officials gathered under a blazing sun to highlight the Narcan distribution, as well as a new mobile clinic that would hand out supplies to addicts across Miami-Dade County. Several representatives from Miami-Dade police’s narcotic bureau were on hand. Miami Police Officer James Bernat, a homeless outreach liasion, spoke at the podium as well.
According to exchange outreach coordinator Emelina Martinez, a different group of officers, headed by Cmdr. Davis, showed up Tuesday. She said she showed the officers a copy of the law creating the program.
“The commander arrived and stated definitively that the Miami PD would continue to arrest our participants until they receive a memo from Jorge Wysong, [of the] City of Miami legal department,” Tookes wrote to Miami prosecutor Howard Rosen, who has been active in opioid prevention and enforcement efforts.
In the email, he asked Rosen to facilitate a meeting between police and the program. The State Attorney’s Office could not immediately comment on Wednesday.
Llanes said on Wednesday evening that he will work to set up just such a meeting.