CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Individuals dealing with drug addiction and former drug users gathered in Charleston to remember friends and loved on who lost their lives to drug overdoses and to protest the city’s needle exchange program being shut down.

Members of the group West Virginia Exchange Union, who gathered at the steps of the state Capitol Monday night, took to Davis Park in downtown Charleston on Tuesday afternoon with the same message.

“West Virginians we are very proud people, we take care of our own,” Shannon Hicks, president of the West Virginia Union Exchange said.

Shannon Hicks

“These people who use drugs are our own. We need to take care of them. You can’t judge somebody by the substance they put in their body, judge them by how they act.”

West Virginia Exchange Union (WVEU) primarily consists up of people dealing with drug addiction. Hicks said it’s the state’s first drug user union and their goal is to fight for drug user’s rights. The group believes that people who are actively using in positions to help make policies about what will help people who use drugs.

The first policy that WVEU protested on Tuesday was the needle exchange program that is no more in Charleston. While the program by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department was shut down in the Spring of 2018, Hicks believes it can come back and should for the health of the community.

“Doing outreach on the street we meet people, four, five, six people who share the same syringe because they have no access to sterile supplies,” Hicks said. “They will use it until the needle breaks off in their arm. Nobody deserves to live like this. You get better harm reduction in a third world country than you do here in West Virginia.”

With the goal of cutting down on diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C, the exchange program allowed drug users to give their dirty needles for clean ones. Those against the program believed that the program increased danger for the public’s health and safety and it was not managed properly.

MetroNews previously reported that there have been 16 reported cases of HIV in Kanawha County in 2019, one off the mark a total of 17 in 2018. Cabell County has seen an HIV cluster and has more reported cases of the disease than the rest of the state’s counties combine. The county’s health department has a harm reduction program.

Dr. Sherri Young, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department Executive Director, has told MetroNews she has no plans to bring the program back. Instead, Young has advocated for more testing which has resulted in the increase of reported number of hepatitis cases.

Hicks said the group ultimately wants drug users to be treated like any other person.

“We deserve to be able to be safe, we deserve to be able to be healthy,” she said. “There’s never been a drug-free civilization, there will never be one. All we can do is actively work towards reducing the harms associated with active drug use.”

West Virginia Health Right in Charleston does have a harm reduction program.