Miami police union head Javier Ortiz (left) and needle exchange director Dr. Hansel Tookes (right)
Miami police union head Javier Ortiz (left) and needle exchange director Dr. Hansel Tookes (right)
City of Miami Police / Stian Roenning

Miami's Police Union Chief Wants to Kill AIDS-Fighting Needle Exchange

South Florida has the highest HIV rate in America thanks in part to intravenous drug use. But the head of the Miami's police union, Javier Ortiz, has now repeatedly called for the city to kill a program designed to slow the rate of AIDS infections and save the lives of IV drug addicts.

In 2016, Miami opened South Florida's first needle exchange, a program that gives heroin addicts clean syringes as long as they trade dirty ones back to the facility. The program is endorsed by doctors all over the world and administered by the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine; it's one of 194 similar programs across the nation. Program director Dr. Hansel Tookes spent five years fighting skeptical lawmakers to set up the exchange. The employees at the exchange examine addicts for infections, distribute information about how to attend rehab, and also distribute Narcan, a safe prescription medicine that can be administered to addicts in the throes of an overdose. In short, Narcan saves lives.

But instead of funding a needle exchange, Ortiz says he'd rather pump extra money into the War on Drugs, which addiction experts argue does nothing to lower drug use or heroin-addiction rates.

"Kids are dying and some support fentanyl with giving free needles," Ortiz tweeted last week from the official Miami Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 20 account, which he runs. "Funding to prosecute drug dealers and rehab for addicts is the only answer."

Neither Ortiz nor Tokes responded to messages from New Times Friday. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long said needle exchanges don't actually "encourage" drug use or increase abuse rates, as Ortiz has claimed, including in a deeply irresponsible TV segment that WPLG Local 10 aired earlier this month. The CDC last year issued an "urgent call" for more needle-exchange programs across the country.

Instead, Ortiz is openly contradicting the medical community and wants more money for cops to arrest people. But despite the literal trillions of dollars spent on the War on Drugs since the 1970s, addiction rates have remained constant. In fact, the nation now faces the worst heroin crisis in its history.

In June, the Miami Herald reported that Miami cops had visited the exchange and threatened to arrest addicts coming in to trade dirty needles off the street. Exchange employees told the Herald that three MPD cops and the Overtown police commander showed up to the exchange and said they “would continue to arrest our participants.” Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes was forced to issue an apology.

Tookes was outraged — he'd previously toured Overtown with a New Times reporter and pointed out the used needles littering one of Miami's poorest neighborhood. Tookes conducted a study in 2009 that showed 95 percent of heroin users simply dump their needles on the ground, which other addicts pick up and use, heightening the chances they contract HIV or hepatitis C. Miami had eight times as many needles left on the ground as San Francisco, which runs a needle exchange.

"The research is out there," Tookes told New Times last year. "Needle-exchange programs like the ones in San Francisco work. And it's so much more than getting a clean needle — there are people working there who will examine any abscesses and make sure they aren't infected. It prevents these common infections from getting worse."

The exchanges are certainly controversial: Heroin use is illegal, and some claim needle exchanges encourage addicts to abuse drugs.

After years of fighting, the University of Miami's exchange launched December 1, 2016 — World AIDS Day. And, as of April, the exchange began distributing Narcan just as heroin abuse has spiked across South Florida.

And Ortiz, along with some other Miami cops, apparently hate it.

On July 2, Local 10 aired a segment in which the news station interviewed Ortiz — who's known for doxxing an innocent civilian, writing incorrect police reports, making fun of murdered children, and sharing racist memes on the internet — about his thoughts on the needle exchange.

Apparently, an MPD cop had unfortunately been pricked by a syringe while patting down a suspected drug user. Astoundingly, neither Ortiz nor Local 10 said where that suspected user had been found or if the syringe in question came from the needle exchange. But Local 10 let Ortiz blame the needle exchange anyway and call for its dissolution.

"This incident is raising questions about whether the city's new needle-exchange program is having any impact on the city's opioid epidemic," a TV reporter said to the camera.

It's unfortunate the officer was pricked by a needle, but the incident certainly isn't raising questions about the exchange program's effectiveness. These programs are not designed to stop drug abuse, which many treatment experts say can never be eradicated. Instead, the program is designed to curb the spread of blood-borne illnesses.

A Local 10 anchor also claimed the program was somehow "too high-risk." But the rest of the story proves the exact opposite point. As long as drugs remain illegal, officers will always be arresting addicts carrying syringes. Exchanges help lower the number of dirty needles flooding Miami, thus making it safer for cops to pat down suspects. Killing the needle exchange would actually make it more likely a cop pricked by an errant needle would contract a disease.

But the segment let Ortiz blab to TV viewers almost unchallenged. "If anything, it's just motivating more people to use," Ortiz said, ignoring the decades of science that has gone into studying exchange programs. "People are now camping out in that area in order to get the Narcan."

That is an objectively good development. If more people have Narcan, more people can save people who'd otherwise die of drug overdoses. The Local 10 piece thankfully quoted a public-health advocate, but the framing was incorrect: Ortiz's statements can be debunked by science, and the TV crew didn't bother to do so.

Ortiz repeated himself in a tweet sent eight days later from the official union account:

"If Narcan is free to addicts because they have a disease, why is chemo not free to cancer patients?" he mused. It's unclear whether Ortiz understands he accidentally endorsed the basic idea behind single-payer health care.

Chief Llanes has repeatedly said he supports the program and issued a directive banning his officers from harassing the exchange.

But Ortiz's thoughts are indicative of how out-of-touch a sizable portion of Miami's law enforcement community still is when it comes to drug abuse and the poor job local news stations do when it comes to challenging powerful elected officials. After the nation has spent more than $1.5 trillion since the Nixon administration to lock up drug offenders, Americans are tired of watching their friends die at record rates. The Miami police union is standing in the way of progress on drug addiction.

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