June Leffler Published

Charleston Set To Vote On Needle Exchange Regulations


Syringe service programs in Charleston have been controversial for years. And this wouldn’t be the first time that the city passed an ordinance on the issue.

But Monday night could be another turning point for the matter, as council members decide what specific guidelines harm reduction programs must follow. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. at Charleston’s convention center. Current city code requires approval from the police chief. It doesn’t say much about how a program should actually operate.

New language would require programs to track needles more closely, and limit the number of needles a participant can take.

That’s been a dividing point for council members. Some want less needles, under the assumption that it would reduce unsightly trash. But council member Keeley Steele has a different concern.

“There is a certain contingency of the council that wants us to take a hard line on the one-to-one model. And I am not one of those,” she said.

Steele sides with CDC guidelines that say restricting needles hinders the mission of syringe programs, which is to curb the spread of infectious disease.

“I want harm reduction organizations to fit into a model that clearly works through science,” she said.

Steele represents the East End. Her ward isn’t far from Health Right, Charleston’s only active needle exchange program.

Another program, ran by grassroots volunteers, had been operating in the city. Solutions Oriented Addiction Response or SOAR held large-scale health fairs in a church parking lot on the West Side.

Council member Deanna McKinney represents a ward in that area. She has seen these events, where organizers set up shop and people flock to receive life saving supplies.

“When I went there, I didn’t see any accountability,” she said.

Organizers say they offer compassion and second chances at these events. Volunteers handed out needles as well as overdose reversal treatments like naloxone. But McKinney saw an influx of people she didn’t know.

“They were just people coming from different angles… how do you keep up with the people that’s coming to you?” she said.

She wants to support those with substance use disorder. In her mind, this ordinance will give her community a say in what happens in their neighborhood and still provide essential services to those in need.

“I pray to God that we make the right decisions, and actually help the people and not just give them tools to keep damaging their bodies and keeping them in the trauma that they’re in,” McKinney said.

McKinney doesn’t want Charleston to go without a harm reduction program. But SOAR has recently called off its health fairs, due to concerns from West Side residents. With no visible presence, the program can’t offer much help.

That’s what worries Steele. Not the number of needles that will or won’t be in the streets, but that if programs shut down, plenty of folks will lose a trusted resource.

“Everyone wants to make sure that folks that need help feel safe. And if you make them feel safe they’ll come for help, but if you don’t make them feel safe, they will not,” Steele said.

Monday night will bring debate to the council’s floor. But most of the provisions in this ordinance are already covered in new state law, signed by Gov. Jim Justice signed on Thursday that would require syringe programs to get a state license and approval from local elected officials.

The city ordinance would add more restrictive language on needle distribution. The city ordinance mandates a one for one exchange. State law mandates a “goal” of one to one exchanges.

The city ordinance would also fine anyone distributing needles unlawfully with a misdemeanor and $500 to $1000 fine.