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Penticton pharmacy buys used needles, offers safe space for drug addicts

Donna Mbamy-Conci, left, and mother Joelle Mbamy of Penticton's Sunrise Pharmacy pose for a photo on Wednesday, July 22, 2018. Joelle is holding a sharps container they hand out with harm reduction kits.
July 12, 2018 - 4:52 PM

PENTICTON - A Penticton drug store is doing what it can to reduce the hazards of drug use in the community.

Sunrise Pharmacy owner Joelle Mbamy and her daughter Donna Mbamy-Conci saw the issues facing the city's homeless and drug addicted on Canada Day and decided to try to make the neighbourhood safer.

Donna says they came up with the idea of a needle return program, offering five cents for each needle handed in. The pharmacy is a certified Safe Harbour location where Donna says there is a policy of zero tolerance for discrimination, judgement or harassment exists.

“People feel safe coming in here. They can trust us, and know they won’t be judged,” Donna says, adding the needle return program is part of the pharmacy’s harm reduction program.

On July 6, the first needles were brought in, but needle drop-offs really picked up after a sandwich board sign was placed at the street curb a few days later.

“It’s amazing, since we’ve put the sign out, we’ve collected more than 1,000 needles,” Donna says.

“A woman living on the hobo trails had 500 needles she had collected, but had no way to transport (them),” she says, so they gave her a large sharps container.

Sunrise Pharmacy began offering five cents for each used needle returned as part of their harm reduction program.
Sunrise Pharmacy began offering five cents for each used needle returned as part of their harm reduction program.

Joelle says theirs was the first pharmacy in Penticton to offer harm reduction take home kits containing the drug Naloxone that can reverse an opioid overdose. It also contains a sharp-safe needle container with 10 new needles. Once the needles are used, it can be returned to the pharmacy with up to 30 used needles in it.

The containers make it safer for users, as well as those collecting and transporting needles.

“We’re recognized as a harm reduction site by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. We’re very careful with how we’re doing this, following every safety measure to ensure everyone is safe,” she says.

The program has been positively received, with addicts feeling more motivated to take ownership of their actions and to clean up after themselves, she says.

"People understand the purpose of the box. It’s a great opportunity for education and awareness amongst the users themselves,” Joelle says. “Drugs have always been around. We’re just more aware of it now. More people are reaching out for help."

Joelle sees the needle program as symbolic rather than one where addicts are bringing back used needles to make money.

“It’s about engaging people. The five cents is symbolic, anyone can get five cents. It’s not an incentive for them to hunt down needles, because if they just picked up for themselves, there wouldn’t be any needles left on the ground,” she says.

The program gets new needles to addicts rather than having them use the same needle over and over again. It’s also meant to help make them more at ease if they are uncomfortable or have nowhere else to take their used needles.

“Every harm reduction kit has a box, so if the needles get left out there it means they didn’t make good use of the box. When they come in, we let them know we value their effort to return the needles and eventually something clicks in their head,” she says.

As well, when people bring the needles in, they are given an opportunity to get into a recovery program.

A similar initiative began in Kamloops in June when volunteers Caroline King and Dennis Giesbrecht self-funded a program to buy back used needles also at five cents apiece.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Steve Arstad or call 250-488-3065 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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