Dave Mistich Published

U.S. District Court Judge Temporarily Blocks West Virginia Needle Exchange Restrictions


Updated Monday, June 28, 2021 at 9:15 p.m.

A federal judge in West Virginia has issued a temporary restraining order to stop a new state law that would put strict restrictions on needle exchange programs.

In a court filing issued Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Robert C. Chambers issued a temporary restraining order to block the implementation of Senate Bill 334. Gov. Jim Justice signed the measure into law in April, with an effective date set for July 9.

The pending law doesn’t explicitly wipe out harm reduction programs, but would set standards that operators say could bar access to care.

Senate Bill 334 would require programs to apply and become licensed and would also limit the number of needles it hands out by requiring participants to return their used needles to get a clean one in exchange. It also would require participants to show state-issued identification.

The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia brought suit last week on behalf of three clients, including Milan Puskar Health Right in Morgantown. In the complaint, plaintiffs argue that the law would be in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits state and local governments from depriving persons of life, liberty, or property without due process.

Plaintiffs also argue that the bill creates a conflict in state code. House Bill 2500 — also passed by the West Virginia Legislature on the final night of the 2021 regular session — establishes the same new article (Chapter 16, Article 63) as was created in Senate Bill 335.

The ACLU-WV says the law would become one of the “most restrictive” measures governing syringe exchange services in the nation — and that it would likely lead to more HIV cases and the spread of other blood-borne illnesses.

ACLU-WV Legal Director Loree Stark applauded the court’s decision to temporarily block Senate Bill 334 from going into effect.

“We’re encouraged by this decision from the court. This harmful, constitutionally flawed bill should never be allowed to take effect. Harm reduction saves lives,” Stark said in a news release Monday following Chambers’ order.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting has reached out to the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, for comment. During the legislative session, Tarr said there is a need for more oversight of harm reduction programs including needed exchanges.

Public health experts, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agree that these harm reduction programs are one of the most effective ways to prevent the rapid transmission of disease among people who use intravenous drugs.

In recent months, the CDC called an HIV outbreak in Kanawha County one of the “most concerning” in the nation. A majority of new HIV cases in the county are among those who use IV drugs, according to West Virginia’s Office of Epidemiology and Prevention Services.

An injunction hearing in the case has been set for Thursday, July 8.