The West Virginia Senate has advanced a bill that renews the debate over needle exchange programs for intravenous drug users.
Tuesday, the Senate approved SB 334 on a vote of 22-11. The bill now goes to the House.
As our Brad McElhinny reported, “The bill would establish a licensing requirement for syringe exchange programs, require a majority of county commissioners to approve a program and require a one-to-one exchange of needles.” In addition, the county sheriff would also have to give his approval.
Bill sponsor Senator Eric Tarr (R, Putnam) has previously tried to outlaw needle exchanges over concerns about dirty needle litter. However, he said on Talkline this week that he cannot get the votes for that, so the next best option is to license and tightly regulate the exchanges.
Senator Ron Stollings (D, Boone), a medical doctor, said West Virginia has a higher risk of HIV and hepatitis because of needle sharing, and making it harder to access clean needles will aggravate the problem.
“We’re pouring gasoline on a fire with this bill right here,” he said during debate Monday.
One of the more controversial provisions of the bill is the requirement of a one-for-one exchange; for each clean needle, a person must provide a used needle. Tarr believes that solves the problem of needle litter, which is a threat to public safety.
Eight of the state’s 14 needle exchange programs operate on the one-for-one model. The others have more flexibility, including two that are needs-based—there is no limit on the number of needles an individual can receive.
Needle exchange is one of the most controversial aspects of community harm reduction strategies. A 2018 national survey by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that only 39 percent of adults supported legalized syringe services.
Many health experts believe the stigma of drug use discourages needle exchanges that, when conducted properly, are effective. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the evidence is conclusive.
“Nearly 30 years of research has shown that comprehensive SSPs (Syringe Services Programs) are safe, effective, and cost saving, do not increase illegal drug use or crime, and play an important role in reducing the transmission of viral hepatitis, HIV and other infections,” reported the CDC.
Needle exchange programs serve as critical contact points where people with addictions can enter drug treatment programs and access health and safety services. According to the CDC, “Research shows new users of SSPs are five times more likely to stop using drugs than those who don’t.”
Harm reduction programs that offer needle exchanges work.
So, here is the question: Does SB 334 provide necessary standardized regulations for these programs and, because of the one-for-one provision, reduce needle litter? Or is it a back-door attempt to make it difficult, if not impossible, to operate a needle exchange in the state?