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Charleston’s city council revamped a local code Tuesday night regarding syringe service programs.
Programs that give clean needles to IV drug users will have to obtain a state license, get approval from the city council, and limit the number of needles given to participants.
Those requirements are already outlined in a recent state law, Senate Bill 334. But the new city code goes a few steps further.
The city would also require a public meeting be held in any neighborhood where a syringe program hopes to set up shop.
Some council members said Charleston’s West Side community wasn’t consulted when a local needle exchange program came to their neighborhood.
Solutions Oriented Addiction Response, or SOAR, set up health fairs in a church parking lot on the West Side.
Council member Jennifer Pharr said she’s spoken with SOAR. While the grassroots organization was welcomed by a church in the neighborhood, Pharr says that wasn’t enough.
“I said, ‘You’re not being a good neighbor. You didn’t speak to the community and ask if it was okay to set up in their backyard,” Pharr said.
The ordinance also slaps misdemeanor criminal charges on anyone giving out needles illegally. State law would only apply civil charges. Anyone in violation of the city’s syringe law would be fined $500 to $1,000.
A sticking point of both city and state law is an adherence to a one-to-one distribution model. That means participants must bring back their used syringes to receive clean ones.
State law only stipulates that programs have a one-to-one “goal.” The city council wanted something more specific. Members debated the reasons why someone with substance use disorder might not be able to bring back every single needle, every single time.
“To say that if you get 10 you have to bring all 10 back or you get nothing, that’s pretty cold,” said Council Member Deanna McKinney. “This is an illness that people do have, let’s not forget that.”
McKinney supports a one-to-one approach, mostly. She thinks it will hold participants accountable, but she wants some leniency, too.
“You don’t want to be too restricted to where you can’t get the help that you need. And you don’t want to be too loose to where you don’t get help at all,” McKinney said.
The final ordinance requires programs to collect 90 percent of the needles it distributes.
When it comes to the mission of syringe service programs — which is to curb the spread of HIV and other blood-borne illnesses — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says restrictive, one-to-one models are not as effective.
The final version of the ordinance passed almost unanimously. Council Member Robert Sheets was the lone member to vote against it.
SOAR’s program recently shut down its health fairs due to the impending city decision and concerns from West Side residents.
“A lot of people are wondering what groups like SOAR will do next. We’re still figuring that out,” Joe Solomon of SOAR wrote to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “For now, we’re shocked the council voted to arrest nurses and pastors for doing what the CDC says we need to do.”
Health Right operates the only active needle exchange program in the city. Health Right’s Executive Director Dr. Angie Settle said these new requirements will not shut her program down.
“We’ll follow the letter of the law. Whatever the ordinance says, we will do it,” Settle said.
The clinic already operates with a one-to-one distribution model.
The city code goes into effect this weekend, preempting state law that begins mid-July.