Needle-exchange worker helps heroin users in Rock County
Click here to read more stories of the Gazette's series on heroin and its impact on Rock County.
A three day series in the Janesville, starting Sunday, focuses on the use of heroin in Rock County. Kyle Geissler reports.
Jimi Reinke is in Rock County twice a week distributing syringes to drug users.
He is doing nothing illegal. His job is to keep people from dying from dirty needles.
Reinke works for Lifepoint Needle Exchange, a program of the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin. Based in Madison, he works a territory from the Dells south to the state line.
Rock County is a prime territory.
He figures he gives out 2,000 syringes a week, 800 of those in Rock County.
That works out to more than 40,000 needles a year in Rock County, and Reinke is not the only source for local drug users.
Most of those syringes are used for heroin, Reinke said.
Reinke has seen a change in the drug-using population here. It used to be much older.
“Then two years ago, I connected with these kids in Janesville,” Reinke said. “There’s so many of them who are 17 to 22. It’s like, if you know a 20-year-old in Janesville, they know someone who shoots heroin.”
The same trend—younger users, including affluent suburbanites—is seen in other Wisconsin cities in recent years, said Scott Stokes, public affairs director for the AIDS resource center.
Reinke said Rock County is well positioned for heroin users. The supply comes from the south, mostly Rockford, Ill. A dose that costs $10 in Rockford could cost $20 to $30 in Madison and $50 to $70 in the Wisconsin Dells, Reinke said.
Rock County Sheriff Bob Spoden said he appreciates the fact that needle exchanging limits HIV exposure, but he is concerned it also might legitimize heroin use.
The sheriff's office wants to put needle exchange programs out of business by taking away their customers, Spoden said.
Reinke said he doesn’t encourage drug use. In fact, he will encourage drug users to get help if they seem receptive.
But often, treatment is hard to find or to pay for, and it’s easier to go back to using, Reinke said.
Stokes said Lifepoint is probably the largest needle-exchange program in the country, and one of the most successful. New HIV infections from drug use have declined 67 percent since the program started, he said.
Reinke started coming to Beloit nine years ago. Now he’s in Janesville or other towns just as often.
“It’s really all the towns in Rock County—Milton, Edgerton,” he said.
Reinke would not allow his photo to be taken because being identifiable on the street could jeopardize the trust that drug users place in him.
Users call Reinke. He’ll come to them—to a house, a park or a parking lot, he said.
Reinke’s work includes distributing little metal “cookers” and cotton balls that are used to clean sediments out of the heroin before it is injected. A used cooker could harbor infected blood.
He also hands out cards with phone numbers and flyers about drugs and infections.
Another item in Reinke carries is Narcan, a drug that blocks the body’s opiate receptors. An injection of Narcan can prevent someone from dying from a heroin overdose.
Reinke has trained more than 200 people how to use Narcan, and he’s heard of 224 times that it’s been used in the 2 1/2 years he’s been giving it out.
EMTs and paramedics carry Narcan as well.
Reinke tries to train drug users: Never use alone. The same amount of heroin in a packet might get you high, might not be enough to get you high, or could be so potent that it could kill you, Reinke advises.
That’s where the Narcan comes in.
Some users tell their friends never to inject them with Narcan, however. The Narcan will interrupt the pleasure and put them into withdrawal, Reinke said. They’d rather take the chance that they might die than to stop the high.
Heroin users often don’t know the dangers of dirty needles before Reinke tells them. They might not know, for example, that HIV will die when the blood dries, but the hepatitis C virus doesn’t.
Hepatitis C is “just rampant” among people who inject drugs, Reinke said. While HIV is still around, hepatitis C is “five times the epidemic,” he said.
Users know they can get busted for having a dirty needle, which the law considers drug paraphernalia. Clean needles are legal, however, so users are motivated to exchange used syringes for Reinke’s clean syringes.
Reusing needles also can cause ugly wounds, infections and scars.
“The first time you use it, it’s bent,” Reinke said. “The second time it’s a barb, and the third time you’re tearing yourself up.”
Reinke has seen pus-filled arms that had to be cut open and drained at the hospital.
Reinke also distributes antibiotic ointment and vitamin E capsules, which help the wounds heal.