Charleston began a needle exchange program a little over two years ago. The expectation among health officials, city leaders and first responders was that passing out clean needles to intravenous drug users would slow the spread of disease from sharing dirty needles and create a contact point for addicts who want to get help.
But the program has gotten off the rails in the short time that it’s been in place. Charleston Mayor Danny Jones and Police Chief Steve Cooper, who once advocated for the program, now contend it has made the state’s capital city a sanctuary for the addicted and dumping ground for needles, while having no appreciable positive impacts.
Cooper says crime scenes are littered with needles that pose a hazard for first responders. He also says the needle giveaways have attracted drug addicts from outside the area, resulting in an increase in crime by those who have to deal drugs and steal to support their habit.
Monday, Cooper, along with leaders of the Charleston Fire Department, released updated rules for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department needle exchange program. They include offering only retractable needles to lessen the risk of an accidental needle stick, limiting distribution to Kanawha County residents who have a valid ID and regular blood tests for participants.
The new rules also specify that “The needle exchange shall operate strictly as an exchange. Participants shall return all needles distributed by the KCHD prior to receiving any additional needles, and KCHD personnel shall count and record each outgoing and incoming needle for each participant.”
The strict wording of that provision is a result of a major failure of the program. Republican mayoral candidate J.B. Akers, who opposes the program, says data he obtained from a Freedom of Information filing shows that the health department has given out 226,000 more needles than it has collected since December 2015.
That explains why first responders have to traverse a mine field of new and used needles when called out for crimes, overdoses and fires in vacant buildings where addicts congregate.
Akers also questions the success rate for treatment. He says of the 6,000 people who have received needles only about 100 have gotten into treatment. However, health officials argue that each one of those who get help represents a small victory, as well as a cost savings to taxpayers, since they reduce their threat of contracting a disease that is expensive to treat.
KCHD board president Brenda Isaac said on Talkline Tuesday that they have suspended the needle exchange portion of the harm reduction program because they could not meet the police and fire department’s April 2 deadline for the changes.
However, she remains a believer in the program, and wants to sit down with a task force created by Charleston City Council to try to work out a compromise.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is a body of evidence to support needle exchanges. “As described in the CDC and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidance, SSPs (syringe services programs) are an effective component of a comprehensive, integrated approach” to preventing the spread of HIV and hepatitis.
The Charleston program may be salvageable, but changes are necessary. The city’s first responders, who are on the front lines of the drug problem, are out of patience.
The needle exchange program is rooted in protecting the health and safety of addicts. Who can blame the police, firemen and ambulance crews for worrying about their own safety?