Charleston Gazette-Mail –
The Charleston City Council on Tuesday introduced amendments to an ordinance that would once again criminalize needle distribution in the city despite widespread agreement among medical professionals that need-based syringe exchanges are best-practice for harm reduction programs.
The amendment would change language from an ordinance passed in 2015 that was meant at the time to decriminalize hypodermic needle possession as the city prepared to open its needle exchange program through the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
The original ordinance allows a needle distribution program to operate in Charleston only with approval by the police chief or a license from the state, which council members recently learned does not exist. The proposed amendment were referred to the city’s Public Safety Committee.
Council members Adam Knauff, Bruce King, Chuck Overstreet, Deanna McKinney, Jennifer Pharr, Sam Minardi, Pat Jones, Shannon Snodgrass and Jeanine Faegre introduced the amendment after a months-long investigation by the Charleston Police Department into SOAR’s activities found nothing criminally wrong with SOAR giving clean needles to people who inject drugs.
According to the investigation report filed by Police Chief Tyke Hunt last week, the language in the ordinance was too loose to determine criminal activity.
Hunt said, also, that he does not believe police should have the power to “approve” of such programs. Instead, he said, medical professionals should be involved in informing city policy around harm reduction, as it is a medical service, not a criminal act.
“When you’re looking at a big picture like harm reduction, the chief of police shouldn’t be the person in charge,” Hunt said. “I — the police — should only be enforcement.”
During public comment during Tuesday’s City Council meeting, 10 people spoke on SOAR and harm reduction services, all strongly in support. They ranged from doctors, medical students, people in recovery and those who have watched loved ones struggle with substance use disorder. No one spoke against SOAR in public comment.
“The fact is that all of us on this call are one bad break away from … substance abuse disorder,” third-year medical student Bobby Snedegar said.
Snedegar said that when he was growing up in Southern West Virginia, he used to feel similarly to some council members who believe syringe access “enables” drug use. Then, he entered the medical field and learned more about addiction. He urged council members to do the same.
One woman shared her experiences of watching her father live with hepatitis.
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases and the National Institute of Drug Abuse, among other research-based medical organizations, syringe exchange programs are proven to slow the spread of communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.
Since 2018, the same year the KCHD’s needle exchange program was shut down after political attacks and negative news media coverage, Kanawha County’s HIV and hepatitis rates have soared, mostly because of an increase in infections among people who inject drugs.
In 2018, there were two cases of HIV in the county tied to IV drug use. In 2019, that rose to 15. Last year, there were at least 32 HIV cases known to be tied to IV drug use, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
Joe Solomon, a co-founder of SOAR who lives in Charleston, said it’s disappointing to see City Council members overlook such statistics while making their arguments to put an end to needs-based clean syringe distribution in the city.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilman Bruce King compared distributing syringes in Charleston to distributing “crack pipes” and “frosty mugs [for beer]” and “bongs.”
However, none of those instruments are likely to transmit HIV from one individual to another.
And, Solomon pointed out, these services already exist: liquor stores and Bars
“It’s just a fact,” Solomon said, “some drugs are stigmatized more than others.”
SOAR temporarily suspended its syringe services while under investigation, but it is back up now. All City Council members were invited to attend a street outreach event Saturday at the Unitarian Universalist Church, on the West Side, to learn more about SOAR’s program and ask any questions they might have.
Solomon said he’s excited to see who comes and is feeling a bit of hope for the future of harm reduction in Charleston after watching council members vote down a controversial panhandling bill on Tuesday.
“It was a real relief to watch City Council members who had clearly spent time thinking on their votes and how they affect not only the souls of our city, but the soul of our city,” Solomon said.