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Syringe service program in Mesa helping people addicted to drugs

For almost a year now, syringe service programs have been legal in Arizona, offering some hope in the fight against opioid addiction.

MESA, Ariz. — If you ask Priscilla Juarez to describe her story of almost 15 years addicted to opiates and now seven months clean, she calls it "a blessing."

"If I didn't go through the things that I went through in my addiction, I wouldn't be the person who I am today," Juarez said. 

Over her time in addiction, Juarez describes how her life revolved around using drugs and getting money.

"I wanted to quit. I just didn't know how. I didn't know where to begin," Juarez said. 

Towards the beginning of 2022, Juarez said she was experiencing homelessness. 

"I was out there on the streets. I just found out I was pregnant," Juarez said.

That's when she met Sebastian Thomas, the outreach coordinator at New Hope Behavioral Health Center

In conjunction with New Hope, Thomas started a syringe service program in January, giving out syringes, sharps containers, NARCAN, and more to people experiencing homelessness and in the throes of drug addiction. 

Through the outreach on the street Monday nights and Tuesday nights at New Hope Behavioral Health Center in East Mesa, Thomas also helps educate users on overdoses and helps connect them to services. 

So far, Thomas said he's had clients come back and tell him they've used the NARCAN, hoping it has saved dozens from overdoses. 

"We want to make sure that folks are not sharing syringes that they're using," Thomas said. 

Thomas is in recovery himself and is almost eight years clean. 

"Unfortunately, being in recovery, I have a lot of friends that are not in recovery. And I've lost a lot of friends to overdoses, including my best friend, Paul," Thomas said. 

Thomas said he lost Paul in 2019. "I'm trying to prevent any more Paul's," Thomas said.

The syringe exchange programs did face some pushback in the legislature, where some worried it could encourage drug use. However, the bill did pass in the 2021 legislative session and was signed into law. The programs have now been legal in Arizona for a year. 

"They were all using drugs before I came along, and so the only thing that I'm helping these people do is to stay alive and stay healthy," Thomas said. 

The CDC said research shows those in syringe service programs are five times more likely to enter treatment and three times more likely to stop using drugs. 

"Regardless of if a person uses drugs or not, you know, they're still a person, and they still deserve to live," Thomas said. 

Juarez is one example. Finding this program has led to more blessings. She's going back to school, in transitional housing, and staying clean.

"I'm finding a way to learn to love myself again and to say, 'Okay, I made mistakes, but that's okay. Today, I don't have to make those same mistakes. Today I can have a different life,'" Juarez said. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, there is help. 

You can find resources here:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

New Hope Behavioral Health Center

Sonoran Prevention Works

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