Syringe services programs: An examination of legal, policy, and funding barriers in the midst of the evolving opioid crisis in the U.S

Int J Drug Policy. 2019 Aug:70:22-32. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2019.04.006. Epub 2019 May 3.


Background: Syringe Services Programs (SSPs) have been proposed as a key intervention to address increasing rates of opioid injection, overdose, and infectious disease transmission in the U.S. In recent years, multiple states and jurisdictions have enacted laws and policies to enable implementation of SSPs. These statutory and regulatory changes have resulted in the expansion of SSPs in a short period of time under a patchwork of different regulations and policies. Understanding how SSPs are responding to this evolving policy environment in the midst of a worsening opioid crisis can inform the development of strategies to maximize the role SSPs play in the response to the opioid crisis.

Methods: In-depth, semi-structured and audio-recorded interviews were conducted with 25 individuals running 23 SSPs in the U.S. A thematic content analysis was employed to identify and group themes across the domains of interest based on inductive and deductive coding of verbatim interview transcripts.

Results: Despite progress in expanding the number of SSPs in recent years, programs described encountering legal, policy, funding, and community barriers that are limiting the scope, scale, and reach of SSPs. To address these barriers, programs are employing multiple strategies to educate about and advocate for SSPs, engage policymakers and communities, combat pervasive stigma, strengthen funding, and reach at-risk populations.

Conclusion: This qualitative study of a geographically diverse sample of SSPs provides key insights into the legal and policy barriers, funding challenges, and contextual factors impacting SSPs and the strategies programs are pursuing to counter these barriers. Coupling these strategies with policy changes that address the underlying legal and financial barriers and advancing efforts to combat stigma around drug use and addiction stand to substantially expand the role of SSPs as part of the public health response to the opioid crisis in the U.S.

Keywords: Heroin injection; Injection drug abuse; Methamphetamine injection; Prescription opioid injection; Syringe exchange; Syringe services program.

MeSH terms

  • Financial Support*
  • Humans
  • Needle-Exchange Programs / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Opioid Epidemic / prevention & control*
  • Policy*
  • Program Evaluation*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Syringes / supply & distribution*
  • United States / epidemiology