CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Charleston Mayor Danny Jones is ready to push the city council to end the ordinance which allows for a needle exchange program in the the capital city.
‘We are going to introduce a bill in council to do away with the decriminalization of needles,” said the Mayor. “We’re going to criminalize them again and call them drug paraphernalia, because that’s what they are.”
Jones, speaking on his radio show 580-Live on WCHS Radio in Charleston, said the needles being handed out at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department are winding up a crime scenes all over the city and are drawing a criminal element into town.
“What we’re experiencing is we’re just blanketed with dirty hypodermic needles,” said Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper. “I have tons of pictures of a lot of them and a lot of them have blood in them.”
Cooper said the needles are found at nearly every crime scene they visit in the city. He offered pictures of needles near youth league baseball fields and noted one child had been stuck with a needle in a bathroom trashcan in a city restaurant. Cooper added it’s also the number one problem he hears from his officers.
“They’re worried when they have suspects who don’t admit they have a needle and then when the go to pat them down they almost get poked,” Cooper explained. “They’re concerned for their own health.”
The worry is identical for the Charleston Fire Department. Lt. Allen Holder said firemen are often called to abandoned homes burning where numerous drug users have been squatting. While fighting a fire, the fire fighters often wind up on their hands and knees to get below smoke and dangerous gasses. In many cases of late, Allen noted, they often find themselves crawling through piles of needles.
“We’ve not only got the fire to contend with, but we’ve got needles that will puncture the protective clothing fire fighters are wearing,” Holder explained. “You’ve got an added danger to the fire fighters because of the needles that are being left in all of the abandoned structures.”
Holder visited the health department anonymously to see how the exchange program worked. He found there was no exchange, but a wholesale giveaway of 30 needles each to anyone who wanted them.
“On your first visit you get an ID card, and its my understanding your friends can bring those cards back and get needles for you,” said Holder. “The young lady I spoke to had six or seven of those cards to get six or seven people’s needles.”
Cooper said the ID cards and the free needles are being found at crime scenes all over the city and in many cases at the scene of overdose incidents. Charleston is the only city in the Kanawha Valley which agreed to the ordinance clearing the way for the needle program and as a result, according to Chief Cooper, out of town users are coming to Charleston just to get the free needles.
“There’s a lot of people who think we ought to save the program,” the Mayor said. “These kind of projects make people feel good.”
Advocates of the needle exchange contend offering users a clean needle will reduce the chance of spreading diseases like hepatitis or AIDS. The needles often come with a tourniquet, alcohol swabs, and in some cases a protective carrying case. The Mayor anticipated a fight as he pushed to end the program.
“It’s going to be a hot political issue, and if they don’t want to do away with it, then at least we’ll know and we can tell the public we tried and we’re going to deal with needles,” said Mayor Jones. “Dr. (Michael) Brumage (Health Dept. Director) and his people are one dimensional folks. They want to keep the HEP-C and AIDS from multiplying, but their constituency is a bunch of junkies.”
Brenda Isaac, president of the Kanawha-Charleston Board of Health, released the following statement after the mayor’s comment:
“The nationwide opioid crisis is frightening our entire country.
“Because concerns have been expressed, I have instructed personnel at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to conduct a robust internal review of the harm reduction program, including its needle-exchange component, and submit a report addressing those concerns.
“We will continue to work with our governmental and non-governmental partners.”