CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Following nearly an hour of discussion, Charleston City Council voted Monday to delay a vote on a bill that would recriminalize the use of hypodermic needles for the use of illegal drugs.
A task force will instead have 60 days to propose a solution to what city officials — including Charleston Mayor Danny Jones and Police Chief Steve Cooper — have described as a growing presence of used syringes being left in public places, increasing the chance of someone being stabbed by a device.
A bill was introduced in city council two weeks ago to make the use of the needles for illicit drugs illegal, as it was prior to September 2015. The bill’s passage would mean the elimination of the needle exchange program of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
A health department official said at a meeting last week the needle exchange rate between new and used needles is 88 percent, but that number only includes people who return used needles to the health department’s Charleston office. Since the program’s inception, around 651,000 needles have been dispensed but only about 424,000 syringes have been returned, a rate of more than 65 percent.
Health officials have said the program is needed to reduce the threat of infectious diseases. The health department has made changes to its program since the March 5 city council meeting, such as requiring people to be present as well as provide identification in order to receive needles.
Finance Committee Chairperson Bobby Reischman, who also serves on the Kanawha-Charleston Board of Health, said there is substantive research proving needle exchange programs are a social good, but that does not mean programs cannot be changed if there is an issue.
“If we can’t up with a solution to make it work, that’s fine. But I think we needed at least 60 days and not two weeks to make a decision,” he said.
The council chamber at Charleston City Hall was packed with proponents of the program as well as police officers, firefighters and first responders. According to Cooper, the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police asked for officers to attend the meeting.
Council was originally scheduled to vote on a bill to illegalize the possession of hypodermic needles and syringes, but the Finance Committee approved to lay over the bill for 60 days. If the full council had not voted on the committee’s suggestion, the bill to recriminalize needles for drug use would have been put on the floor for a vote.
During the course of floor discussion, the conversation shifted back and forth from the benefits of the needle exchange program to whether local lawmakers support the city’s law enforcement.
“The police officers and firefighters, I believe in you. I commend you for doing your job. I certainly wouldn’t do it,” said Councilmember Shannon Snodgrass, who previously served on the health board. “My job is to listen to you on the frontline and support you to protect our city and our citizens. I personally thank you for all you do for us.”
Council President Tom Lane said everyone knows a person with an addiction, and those people need to be helped rather than pushed away.
“It’s hard to imagine what life would be like living fix to fix and the despair of having to depend every minute on where the next one’s coming from,” he said.
Jones, the last public official to speak on the measure, said the representatives who live in more affluent Charleston neighborhoods have no problem with continuing the program because police officers have only found used needles in downtown neighborhoods.
“I’m very proud to be identified tonight with these first responders,” he said. “We know what the truth is … And can you imagine the difference in debate if those needles that had been found at the Salvation Army-Boys and Girls Club if they had been found at Holz (Elementary) School.”
Reischman called out Jones for making the speech “personal,” to which Jones fired back, saying Reischman was out of line.
“You’re making it personal,” the mayor added. “They wired this thing before they got here. You told me I was getting a vote and we’re not going to get a vote, so go ahead and close debate.”
The council voted 16-11 on the matter.
“The bill is delayed until after the primary, ” Jones said, referencing the May 8 election date.
While a committee was not finalized Monday evening, Reischman said he will see who is interested in serving. He also said members will consider various proposals, including introducing retractable needles.
“The issue is basically is the program workable or not,” he said.
Under the passed motion, the council will next take up the elimination bill at its May 21 meeting.
Jones is the host of “580 Live” on MetroNews affiliate WCHS-AM in Charleston.