BELLEVILLE — The city of Belleville filed a lawsuit in an effort to stop a needle exchange program offered by a nonprofit AIDS service organization.
Bethany Place, at 821 W. A St. in Belleville, gives intravenous drug users sterile needles and provides other services to help prevent the spread of blood-transmitted diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.
The city believes such a program violates the type of operations allowed for that site per the city's zoning codes, according to the lawsuit filed Feb. 6. And, the city wants to fine the agency $250 to $1,000 for each day it has operated the program.
Bethany Place Executive Director Angela Barnes and the attorney representing the organization could not be reached for comment.
Mayor Mark Eckert said neighbors complained about finding used needles in their yards and police officers have seen people use drugs in front of Bethany Place.
"We can discuss all day about the value of the program ... but it's something they should have had a variance for," Eckert said.
Bethany Place is in an area zoned as a light industry district.
According to the zoning code, such a district is where "light industry and warehouses may locate without detriment to the remainder of the community."
The city gave Bethany Place a use variance in 1998 to operate a small community residence with five beds and office space, but the variance does not authorize the needle exchange program.
The city asked the agency in October to cease the program and go before the city's Zoning Board of Appeals. Bethany Place has not applied for a variance.
In correspondence with the Illinois Department of Public Health, Barnes said Bethany Place has not received any calls from neighbors reporting discarded syringes. If notified, Bethany Place staff would clean up any dropped syringes and dispose of the items properly.
If the public reported such incidents, Bethany Place could use the information to find and educate those who use syringes to turn in the syringes and be part of the needle exchange program.
Barnes said the program dispensed thousands of needles and collected 58,134 used needles since its inception in 2009. The program had 145 participants as of February 2012.
Bethany Place serves 12 counties and is one of eight needle exchange programs in the state.
St. Clair County had the fifth-highest rate of new diagnoses of HIV and AIDS cases the past six years among Illinois counties, according to an October 2011 report by the Illinois Public Health Department. In some cases the county ranked third.
Still, Karen Irvin, who lost her son to a heroin overdose in February 2012, said she wants Bethany Place to stop giving needles to drug addicts.
"My point of view is from a mother's point of view; it's not from an addict's point of view," Irvin said.
Karen Irvin said her son, Erik Irvin, went to Bethany Place for help twice the night before he died.
"Instead, the second trip there, they gave him a bag with a needle and a spoon and alcohol wipes and condoms," Karen Irvin said. "Why would you turn around and give him a needle if you know he's wanting help to get clean?"
Erik Irvin, 30, was found dead early Feb. 9, 2012, in the bathroom of the MotoMart gas station near Bethany Place. The agency has not said whether he was a needle exchange participant.
A few hours before Erik Irvin's death, his wife, Christal Irvin, was found passed out in the bathroom of Bethany Place. She was treated at a hospital for the heroin overdose and later charged with heroin possession.
Karen Irvin said her daughter-in-law sees the value in the needle exchange program and understands its purpose, but the two disagree.
"With the drug epidemic as bad as it is in Illinois and Missouri, they are enabling the addicts," Karen Irvin said. "They need to be on our side. They need to be fighting it -- not giving out needles."
Anyone 18 or older can buy sterile syringes from some pharmacies and possess up to 20 needles.
Needle exchange programs such as Bethany Place, however, take steps to ensure proper disposal of their clients' syringes. For example, Bethany Place's program is a 1-to-1 program, which means clients get new needles if they return used needles. The agency provides containers to clients for safe storage of used needles until the items are returned.
Bethany Place also issues "syringe exchange" participant cards, which lets clients know they can return syringes without facing criminal prosecution for drug residue in the syringes.
The Illinois Hypodermic Syringes and Needles Act exempts needle exchange programs from prosecution for syringe possession if the agency participates in scientific research programs.
Bethany Place participates in research conducted by Beth Israel Hospital's chemical dependency unit in New York.
The hospital's research shows that needle exchange programs reduce risky injection practices and syringe reuse in Illinois by 89 percent, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
In 2011, Bethany Place's needle exchange program was completely state-paid and cost $15,000, about 2 percent of its total budget, Barnes said then.
The average cost of lifetime treatment of an HIV patient is approximately $300,000, the Illinois Department of Public Health estimates. In contrast, it costs less than $200 per person per year to provide needles and pay for proper disposal.
In 2009, President Barack Obama lifted a ban on using federal dollars for needle exchange programs but Congress reinstated the ban in 2011. The Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS continues to advocate ending the ban.
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.