CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Charleston City Council could consider a bill to criminalize the possession of hypodermic syringes and needles, eliminating the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s needle exchange program.
Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, who hosts “580 Live” on West Virginia MetroNews affiliate WCHS-AM, is pushing for the measure because of an increase in needles found in the Capital City.
The council’s Finance Committee listened to presentations Monday evening from Dr. Michael Brumage, the former executive director and health officer for the department, and Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper regarding the effects of the program.
Brumage, who now serves as director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, said the needle exchange is part of a larger harm reduction effort, which includes recovery as well as testing for HIV. As part of the anonymous needle exchange program, individuals receive materials including syringes, which are counted after a participant returns used needles to the department’s Charleston office. If a person fails to return the same number of needles given to them, they receive fewer needles at their next visit.
According to Brumage, West Virginia has the highest Hepatitis C infection rate in the country and the second-highest Hepatitis B infection rate behind Kentucky.
“The prescription drug use epidemic has now transitioned completely over in the last few years to an IV drug use epidemic,” he said. “That’s why we’re seeing more IV drug users.”
Brumage said the increase in needles is the result of a transition from the misuse of opioids to heroin.
“This whole epidemic is exploding in front of our eyes,” he said. “That’s why three years ago, it wasn’t as bad as it was today.”
Cooper said in his presentation he receives hundreds of complaints a week from business owners and Charleston residents about needles found in public places, noting there are not enough officers to efficiently address illegal drug use.
He added the health department sees 4,000 to 5,000 people as part of the needle exchange program.
“It’s the same size as Baltimore when it comes to needle exchange,” he said. “Baltimore city has 3,300 police officers, I have 150. It’s an unfair burden for a small police department to have to police this many members of a criminal population.”
Cooper asked city department leaders about the presence of needles at the Finance Committee meeting, to which all said this year so far has been the worst they have seen.
“Our business districts are in trouble, our mall’s in real trouble,” he said. “It’s gotten out of control.”
Cooper said the police department has talked to the health department about the spread of needles.
“There’s been no reciprocity when it comes to working with us to solve these problems,” he said. “It’s come to a tipping point.”
Brumage acknowledged the growing public presence of needles as an issue, but the elimination of the needle exchange would lead to a rise in diseases such as HIV.
“If this goes away, people will die and things will get worse,” he said.
He also said he would be willing to work with the police department and other agencies to address the issue. One solution he noted was the installation of containers solely for disposing of needles. A bin for this purpose is outside of the health department building.
“We would like to be able to continue to save lives,” he said. “We want to work with everybody and anybody to mitigate the problem.”
The bill was referred to the Finance Committee, which will meet before the next full body meeting on March 19.