Not everyone knows it, but the NZ Needle Exchange Programme is an essential service. That means almost all outlets are open under lockdown, albeit under reduced hours – check their website for details.
Jason George is the Harm Reduction Lead at the NZ Needle Exchange Programme, and he has some important advice. It’s early times yet, but he says they learned a few things from previous lockdowns. “Much like it is for everyone, uncertainty is a big issue for people who use or inject drugs. It’s less of an issue for people who might be dabblers or use occasionally, but for people who are dependent on their drug of choice it’s much more of a worry.”
People who are dependent and use heavily are most vulnerable, George says. “They are more likely to end up having to choose between drugs and food.”
Lockdown is especially tough for people who rely on donations (this, George clarifies, is commonly referred to as “begging”) or minor crime like shoplifting, to fund their supply. These people may be forced to quit, because it’s literally impossible to continue. If you or someone you know is withdrawing from drugs, here’s some advice for managing withdrawal.
Reduced hours means reduced access to free injecting equipment. Unfortunately, that could lead to more sharing or reusing of equipment and the associated dangers of blood-borne viruses such as hep C and HIV. Some Needle Exchange outlets have 24/7 vending machines, and you can also order equipment online. But that’s not free.
So George suggests people stock up on equipment when they do travel to an outlet, in case of unexpected closures, or in case they have to give their equipment away to someone else in need.
Lockdown impacts all business, even illicit ones, and that can disrupt drug supplies. Supply problems can lead to substances being adulterated – mixed with something else – or sold as something else entirely, which brings a greater risk of overdose. The usual supply might dry up completely, or it can be more difficult to connect with dealers, especially if they don’t live nearby. Some dealers shut down business during level four, to be responsible and help reduce the spread of Covid.
Price rises are inevitable.
“During the previous lockdown we saw prices for methamphetamine increase significantly, especially the further south you got from Auckland. Increases for other drugs were sometimes called 'lockdown tax'. I expect this will happen more and more as the lockdown goes on, particularly if Auckland remains in lockdown.”
When supplies are unreliable, some people may be tempted to stockpile – buying more when they can, to get a sense of “certainty” or feeling of “control”. That’s one option, George says, but it’s risky because it could lead to increased use. “People who are substance dependent … often find the extra drugs ‘burn a hole in their pocket’, especially as boredom kicks in as lockdown goes on. They can end up running out early, before they can afford to resupply - and wind up dealing with withdrawal.”
Plus, that brings an increased risk of overdose. Here’s some advice for reducing the risk of overdose.
Be mindful of stockpiling, George says.
“Only stock up on your drug of choice if you are able to ration your stash until you are able stock up again!”
Lockdown can be tough for people who use drugs and live alone, George says. “If their social networks largely consist of other people who use or inject drugs, who are more “associates” than real friends, they can be particularly isolated … these aren’t really people who will check in to make sure you are ok, and vice versa.”
Be safer if you’re injecting drugs during lockdown (check here for more)
- Make sure you wash your hands often, and clean all equipment and surfaces before and after use.
- If you have cold, flu or COVID-19 symptoms, stay home and call Healthline 0800 358 5453
- Get extra supplies of equipment when you are able to visit a Needle Exchange outlet
- Wear a mask when you go to an outlet, and use contact tracing
- Be mindful of how much you’re using during lockdown – it’s easy to use more than usual
- Try not to increase your use
- If possible, keep in contact with other people
- Need advice or support? Try the live chat feature on the Needle Exchange website
- If you’re struggling with your mental health you can call or text 1737 at any time to speak with a trained counsellor – it’s free and confidential.
- Get vaccinated- you can book an appointment at https://bookmyvaccine.covid19.health.nz/
All needle exchange outlets are open except for Ashburton, which has no available venue under lockdown. George says rather than travelling to the next closest outlet (Timaru), people in that area are advised to contact their local peer worker – call the Timaru needle exchange for details on 03 688 8158.
If you need advice, or just someone to talk to, you can talk to staff at your local exchange when you visit. But remember, outlets have minimal staffing during lockdown, so please be patient and considerate. Small outlets may have to operate on a one-in, one-out basis, so this can be more challenging than usual.
Check the Needle Exchange website for more information, it’s updated regularly.
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