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Judge denies preliminary injunction to halt new syringe exchange law

A federal judge has concluded he can no longer halt West Virginia’s new law restricting harm reduction programs, including syringe exchange services.

Judge Robert C. Chambers

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers issued an order this afternoon dissolving a temporary restraining order and denying a request for a preliminary injunction.

He noted that granting such relief, even temporarily, is reserved only for the most compelling of cases. An underlying theme in the judge’s decision was the very question of granting emergency relief now when new requirements surrounding syringe services would go into effect in January.

The judge did not rule out the possibility of a case challenging the law being successful in the longer term.

“However, the government has indicated that those new restrictions are not effective until January,” Chambers wrote in a footnote.  “Therefore, even if the Court were to agree with these allegations it has no bearing on the Motion for Emergency Relief.”

Loree Stark

Loree Stark, an ACLU-West Virginia attorney who represented syringe exchange clinics in the case, expressed disappointment in this result but held out the possibility of a future challenge to the law.

“We respect the court’s decision, although we are of course disappointed with the results of the ruling,” Stark stated. “We are considering our available options for moving forward.”

Chambers acknowledged the stakes are high for the programs, which are aimed at reducing the spread of HIV and other diseases such as Hepatitis C. But he concluded plaintiffs hadn’t successfully made their case, which was built on a number of procedural issues.

“West Virginia is experiencing an opioid-related epidemic and facing alarming outbreaks of Hepatitis C and HIV, all exacerbated by the spread of infections and other harm related to the use of syringes by drug abusers and others untrained in syringe hygiene,” Chambers wrote.

“To combat these outbreaks, public health officials have implemented several strategies, including sterile syringe exchanges. These programs, which are known as ‘needle exchanges,’ provide sterile syringes to participants upon request while promoting other public health services and preventing the spread of disease.”

Such harm reduction services have demonstrated success, Chambers wrote.

“Despite this success and contrary to the recommendations and objections from authorities in the field, the West Virginia Legislature decided to regulate these syringe services, perhaps to the point of elimination.”

Senate Bill 334, which was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor this year, requires syringe services programs to be licensed by the state Office of Health Facilities Licensure and Certification.

Programs would need to provide a written statement of support by a majority of the county commission and by a majority of the council in a municipality where the program would be located.

Supporters of the programs have contended that sign-off may result in political pressure. Supporters say the sign-off represents community buy-in.

The new law would also require programs that offer syringe services to offer or provide references to HIV, hepatitis and sexually transmitted disease screening, vaccinations, birth control, behavioral health services, overdose prevention, syringe collection and more.

And the law has a goal — but not a requirement — of distributing syringes on a one-for-one basis. The law calls for proof of a West Virginia identification, a requirement that local health experts have said will discourage participants who are concerned about stigma or legal consequences.

The law includes the possibility of the state Office of Health Facilities Licensure and Certification assessing fines of $500 to $10,000.

Chambers had issued a temporary restraining order as the law was to go into effect July 9. The day before that, the judge listened to about three hours of court discussion about aspects of the law.

One argument was an objection that the Legislature had passed two unrelated bills, each referring to sections of state code with the same number. The judge concluded that could be worked out after the fact.

Another objection was that aspects of the bill weren’t made clear to average citizens in the title. The judge concluded that argument was unlikely to succeed.

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