IONIA, Mich. (WOOD) — This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Grand Rapids needle exchange program. Controversial at its time, it is now an accepted approach to dealing with drug abuse and the spread of disease.

Now, it’s moving into more rural areas including Ionia County, which will begin a once-a-week exchange on Thursday.

The idea of a needle exchange program emerged in 1986 at the height of the AIDS epidemic, proposed by then-Kent County Deputy Medical Director Richard Tooker. The idea was the opposed by police. It wasn’t until 1997 that former Grand Raids Mayor John Logie officially proposed the idea. The needle exchange program didn’t officially start until 2000 with the Grand Rapids Red Project’s Clean Works initiative.

The program is credited with helping lower the percentage of Kent County HIV cases associated with dirty needles from 25% to 8%.

“These programs are extremely effective at reducing the spread of HIV, reducing the spread of hepatitis C, reducing overdoses, as well as getting people into treatment,” said Steve Alsum, executive director Grand Rapids Red Project at the corner of Hall Street And Madison Avenue SE, where more than 1 million needles are given away each year.

“Of the 14 most populous counties in the state, the opioid-related overdose mortality rate in Kent County is actually a half to a third of that in the 13 other most populous counties,” Aslum said.

Decades of study has all but eliminated opposition to clean needle exchange programs, with the majority of states allowing them.

Starting Thursday morning, people can go to the Ionia County Health Department, 175 E. Adams St., between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. for one such program.

Ionia County Health Officer Ken Bowen said the agency has no idea how many people will take advantage of the program right away, but he expects the numbers to increase as the word gets out and more people trust the system.

Bowen said after the program gets going, there will likely be plans to expand it to other sites, perhaps even a mobile unit.

“It really is a program that is needed everywhere in the state and everywhere in the country, if the numbers we look at are correct,” he said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has set a goal of cutting opioid deaths in Michigan in half over the next four years.

The state health department is seeking to expand syringe swap programs to more rural areas, most recently in Marquette and Sault Ste. Marie.

In 2017, Michigan recorded nearly 3,800 new hepatitis C cases. The numbers continue to increase everywhere, especially in rural areas which have the fastest rates of growth, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I’ve not had a single community agency or law enforcement agency tell me they are opposed to this,” Bowen said.

It also helps that the program is completely state-funded, meaning no local cash was used.

“People are five times more likely to go into treatment if they have some kind of interaction with a syringe services program,” Bowen said. “We want to help people into to treatment, but in the meantime we want to keep them alive.”