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Kanawha-Charleston Health Department suspends needle exchange

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper announced Monday afternoon new rules for the needle exchange part of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s harm reduction program.

Hours later, the health department announced it was suspending the needle exchange.

The new rules would have limited the type of needles distributed, who could participate in the needle exchange and implement a one-to-one exchange policy regarding new and used needles. It comes after public outcry of the program by city officials, including Cooper and Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, who have cited an increase in crime and a growing public presence of needles as reasons to end the program.

“Our officers estimate that at least six in 10 of the people they come in contact with have needles on them,” Cooper said.

The needle exchange is part of a larger harm reduction program, which also offers testing for diseases. Charleston City Council voted last week to delay a vote until its May 21 meeting on a bill to recriminalize hypodermic needles for illegal drug use.

The rules included limiting the needle exchange to Kanawha County residents only, in which participants would be required to present a government-issued photo identification and be tested every six months for blood-borne illnesses. Participants would only be able to receive needles if they returned all the needles given to them. Additionally, all needles would have to have been retractable

The new rules would have gone into effect April 2.

According to City Attorney Paul Ellis, the Charleston Police Department raised concerns about the needle exchange beginning late last summer. Police officials and fire department leadership met separately with representatives of the health department concerning possible improvements. By December, the fire department had located a possible Texas manufacturer to provide retractable needles for a pilot program at no cost.

“We asked the health department how many needles they needed. What we got is what they said was would need around 250,000 for a six-month program, and they estimated their per-week give out at that time was around 9,200 needles a week,” Ellis said. “We told the manufacturer that. They agreed.”

Ellis added the manufacturer was also going to collect data to determine any issues for the possible development of a new type of needle.

“The whole idea was potentially a nationwide program. That’s what the manufacturer told us,” he said.

Ellis said the health department did not keep in contact with city agencies after December, and instead chose a pilot program for 10 to 12 patients. Johns Hopkins University would have conducted related data surveys.

“At the end of the day, the health department delayed it and then they didn’t follow up on what they said they would do,” he said.

John Law, the public information officer with the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said the department could seek partners on a possible solution to improve the needle exchange and help those in need of assistance.

“But right now, that portion of the program is suspended,” he said.

Jones, who earlier this month pushed a bill before city council to end the needle exchange program, said he was happy about the news.

“I think we’ve been able to discredit the program. I think it’s been bad from the beginning. It’s done nothing but cause a crime wave in downtown Charleston,” he said.

Jones said the needle exchange program at West Virginia Health Right, which began providing retractable needles to patients last week, is enough for the city.

“This is the best day I’ve had in a long time,” he added.

Jones also said he sent a letter to state Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta requesting an audit of the needle exchange, and provide a financial review to determine if supporting the program would be best for the city.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said it will file a Freedom of Information Act request on information about communication among public officials made prior to Monday’s announcement.

“The death blow to Charleston’s needle exchange program today at the hand of Mayor Jones and Chief Cooper is appalling and completely circumvents the City Council’s decision to research the program and address problems that may exist,” ACLU-WV Legal Director Jamie Lynn Croft said. “We stand in support of any policy that decriminalizes drug paraphernalia and treats addiction for what it is: a public health issue.”

Jones is the host of “580 Live” on MetroNews affiliate WCHS-AM, based out of Charleston.

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