CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Charleston City Council voted Monday to table a bill that would have recriminalized hypodermic needles for illegal drug use, as Mayor Danny Jones opened the possibility of later action by the body.
City council voted at its March 19 meeting to delay a vote on the bill until Monday’s meeting. The health department suspended the needle exchange program a week later after Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper issued new regulations limiting the types of needles and who could participate.
The West Virginia Bureau of Public Health suspended the certification of the program on May 14. The state agency said in a 62-page report the health department failed to meet multiple guidelines including “failure to build and maintain community support from key stakeholders such as first responders” and “insufficient evidence to support the safe recovery and disposal of used syringes and sharps waste from all participants” of the Harm Reduction Program, which includes the needle exchange program.
City council voted in 2015 to decriminalize syringes for illegal drug use.
“I just think we made a mistake,” Jones said Monday before the council. “I think all of us did. Our hearts were good. We were in the right place.”
All council members with the exception of Councilmember Jack Harrison voted in favor of tabling the bill.
Jones, the host of “580 Live” on WCHS-AM, said crime has declined since the health department’s needle exchange program has been suspended. He cited a decrease in abandoned house fires as his evidence.
“Charleston’s back, folks. And it’s better now,” he said.
Jones spoke highly of the needle exchange program of West Virginia Health Right, saying its needle exchange is enough for the city. The mayor donated $5,000 to the organization in March to support its program.
“I think it’s so cumbersome to get into their program that a person may stop and have a moment of clarity,” he said. “You have to fill out a lot of paperwork to get into their program. And you have to see this person, see that person.”
West Virginia Health Right also requires needle exchange participants to return all needles provided to them at the risk of not being allowed to continue participating.
Jones said a bill allowing West Virginia Health Right to continue its needle exchange program could be ready by the June 4 meeting. The Public Safety Committee would consider the measure before a full chamber vote.
“I promise you I will do everything in my power over the next seven months to keep that needle exchange closed at the health department. Every single thing,” he said. “Charleston’s back, the mall is safer, downtown is cleaner, the structure fires have gone down.”
City Council President Tom Lane said while it is good for the city to support a needle exchange program, he is curious if West Virginia Health Right can handle being the city’s only option.
“I think we need to get some more information. I think we need to see a bill that might be introduced, but it looks like that’s where we’re heading,” he said.
Lane, who also presided over a task force meeting on needle exchange programs, added it will be challenging to exempt West Virginia Health Right from any bill regarding syringe use.
“I think it would be very difficult to enact a law that limits it to one vendor,” he said.
Harrison said after last week’s decision by the state, the health department should not continue its needle exchange program.
“My ‘no’ vote was to send a message that I’m not pleased with how they are operating at least in this program,” he said. “If you want a good program and a bad program, you’ve got Health Right on the good side, and the department on the bad side. You want to run a bad program? Run it like the health department. You want a good program? Run it like Health Right.”
Kanawha-Charleston Board of Health President Brenda Isaac said last week national organizations are reviewing the state’s report, which she noted had inaccuracies.
Jones said Monday the health department is not fit to run a needle exchange program.
“You can bring any professor from any university, but that professor, either he or she, they are not out there with these police and firefighters in the mud and the blood and the beer and in the needles,” he said. “They’re not the ones putting out the fires. They’re not the ones dealing with the criminals.”