Clinics and grassroots groups that serve those in active addiction across the state have formed the Mountain State Harm Reduction coalition.
The coalition is made up of groups that hand out clean needles and life-saving medication to people who use drugs. But the statewide organization hopes to focus on more than just direct service. Instead, the coalition will act as a voice for those in active addiction.
Laura Jones is executive director of the Milan Puskar Health Right in Morgantown, which operates a syringe service program. Jones said when legislators make laws around addiction, they should hear the perspective of those using drugs.
“We discovered the voice of people who use drugs was absolutely absent from any discussions,” she said.
Jones said this was most apparent when the state passed a law regulating syringe service programs this year. Since then two programs, in Marion and Mercer counties, have shut down.
Kanawha County is currently dealing with “the most concerning” HIV outbreak in the nation due to IV drug use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After coming to Charleston, the CDC released a report in August saying more syringe services are needed to curb the spread of HIV.
Even though these drugs are illegal to sell and use, Jones said West Virginia does not need to continue a “War on Drugs” approach.
“We really are trying to move away from police intervention being the answer,” Jones said.
The coalition will begin to look at their clients as fellow activists and leaders. By taking those roles, people who use drugs can shape the group’s platform based on their own needs.
“They have unique needs that are only met by harm reduction services,” said Lill Prosperino with Southern West Virginia Harm Reduction.
These people might not be in a 12-step program or living in a sober-living home. Prosperino said even if these people aren’t on the path to recovery, they still deserve representation and health services.
“There are people who never intend to quit using drugs. Those folks’ needs are often not met by traditional substance use services,” Prosperino said.
The coalition will host its first health fair this Saturday at a farmer’s market in Morgantown. It will have its first organizational meeting that same day.