Duluth needle exchange program raises concern

DULUTH, Minn. - Some community leaders are expressing concern about drug users congregating in downtown Duluth, but the focus this time isn't the Last Place on Earth.

Site of the needle exchange program
A needle exchange program is set to open in the Center for Drug and Alcohol Treatment, a block from the Last Place on Earth in Duluth, Minn. Forum News Service

DULUTH, Minn. - Some community leaders are expressing concern about drug users congregating in downtown Duluth, but the focus this time isn't the Last Place on Earth.

Instead, the attention has turned one block west, where a needle exchange program is set to open in early September. The program will provide free needles and syringes for the exchange of dirty ones, with the goal of stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases. It will be operated out of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, with its entrance on Michigan Street near the corner of First Avenue East.

The proximity to the temporarily closed head shop as well as Lake Place Park has some officials calling for program administrators to reconsider the location.

"It's ludicrous to put the entrance next to a park," Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said. "While I understand the goals of the program, there needs to be some more community collaboration."

However, clinic officials say the program is well-maintained and will not lead to an influx of drug users in that area of downtown. In addition, a central location on the bus line is important for reaching the people who most need the services, according to program officials.


The program is operated by the Rural AIDS Action Network, which receives funding from the Minnesota Department of Health. The program also will offer free HIV/AIDS testing.

It is set to launch after Labor Day weekend. Exchange services will be available from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Why there?

While several city officials have said they're not opposed to the idea of a needle exchange program in Duluth, they expressed concern about the location and said it needs further discussion.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness questioned why the city was never contacted for input.

"I would express disappointment that, as far as I'm aware, there wasn't any conversation with downtown officials," Ness said. "At a minimum, we should be having a conversation about the pros and cons and different considerations that go into where it should be. Those are the sorts of conversations we should be having before it opens."

City Councillor Linda Krug said the opening of the clinic will jeopardize the work that has been done to restore Old Downtown.

Since the Last Place on Earth, the controversial shop that sold synthetic drugs, was closed by a judge last month, the area has improved significantly, Krug said, but the presence of a needle exchange seriously threatens that, she said.


"We're trying to revitalize downtown," Krug said. "This does not seem in keeping with what we're trying to do."

Ramsay reiterated that police calls to the area have been down since the Last Place on Earth closed, but said he fears the needle exchange program will undo the work police have done to make the area safer.

"It seems as though we keep getting the deck stacked against us," he said.

City Councillor Garry Krause said he has concerns about needle exchange programs in general, saying they add some validity to illegal drug use.

"If not downtown, what area is a good area for it?" he asked. "Anywhere it is, it'll certainly have an impact on the community."

Not the same as Last Place

Gary Olson, CEO of the nonprofit Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, said his organization is a perfect fit for the program and he's confident there will not be any issues.

"People come to us to do the right thing," Olson said. "They want help, and they're being responsible. It's the ones that don't come to us that we're worried about."


Charles Hempeck, executive director of the Rural AIDS Action Network, said he was aware of the issues at the Last Place on Earth but insisted that Duluthians would not see the program's clients lingering on the street or in the park.

Users of drugs like heroin don't typically linger around in public like users of the products sold at the Last Place on Earth, he said.

Aaron Keith Stewart, an HIV health educator who is working for the program, said there will be a high level of security in and around the building, including several cameras. Additionally, anyone caught using illegal drugs in or near the building will be temporarily banned from using the program's services, he said.

"We want to try to protect the relationships we form," he said. "The relationship we want to build is one of ownership."

Olson also noted that the location in the center building will bring addicts closer to treatment options. Just getting a foot in the door could set them on a course of treatment, he said.

"Our primary way is to engage people in a positive way," he said. "We're there to help people make a positive change in regard to drug use."

Mark Fredrickson, co-owner of printing company ShelDon, which is next to the Last Place on Earth, was a frequent critic of the head shop. But he said he doesn't have an issue with the needle exchange program moving in.

"The basic premise is different," he said. "They're trying to help addicts. (Last Place owner Jim Carlson) is trying to take advantage of people for profit."


But the Michigan Street location may be short-lived, anyway.

Olson said the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment is looking to open a new medication-assisted recovery clinic within the next year. At the clinic, clients will be able to receive medications including methadone as part of the treatment process.

The needle exchange program would likely move with it, but no location has been selected yet, Olson said.

Exchange in Superior

The area's only other needle exchange program is housed at the AIDS Resource Center in Superior, Wis., on the second floor of the Board of Trade Building at Tower Avenue and Belknap Street.

The location has been operating the Lifepoint needle exchange program since 2005, serving hundreds of clients a year, said Bill Keaton, vice president of government and public relations for the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. And a fair number are coming from Duluth every year, he said.

"In recent years, unfortunately, we've seen an increase in heroin use," he said. "We're seeing an increasing number of people coming in asking for our Lifepoint program."

Keaton said it's important to have community conversations before choosing a location for a new needle exchange site.


"We certainly wouldn't do it near schools or parks," he said. "We always make sure we establish a relationship with local law enforcement before we begin the program anywhere."

Employees of several other businesses in the building said they have not had any issues with the program or its clients.

"It surprised me that it was even in here," said Bob Blake, a State Farm insurance agent whose office is in the building. "I've noticed nothing in the building here."

What To Read Next
Get Local