The harm reduction program known as the needle exchange operated by the Cabell- Huntington Health Department does good work, yet the West Virginia State Senate wants to end it.
Senate Bill 334 was approved by the Senate last week and now is in the hands of the House of Delegates. It establishes a licensing program within the Department of Health and Human Resources for harm reduction programs operating syringe exchanges.
Under SB 334, all new and existing programs would need to apply to the Office for Health Facility Licensure and Certification. Programs would need approval of the county commission and the county sheriff. They would be required to pay an application fee and have a 30-day comment period before they could go into effect.
Programs would be required to offer a full array of harm reduction services, such as HIV testing, not just syringe exchanges. Any current program offering just syringe services would cease operation six months after passage of the bill.
Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a physician, called SB 334 an anti-harm reduction and said 16 programs in the state would cease to operate under the bill. Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, lead sponsor of the bill, defended the legislation by saying “bad actors” in the state need to be held accountable. He railed on needle litter and said law enforcement officials were in favor of the bill to deter crime.
The fact that this legislation would end the existing program in Huntington and Cabell County and replace it with a new one is particularly concerning. The program operated by the Cabell-Huntington Health Department appears to be working.
Complaints about needles being found in parks or on curbs have practically vanished, as the program requires a one-for-one exchange. But senators apparently preferred to go with hearsay over experience. Yes, there are anecdotes of stray needles here and there in West Virginia, but during debate on the bill specific incidents or statistics didn’t enter into consideration.
Senators apparently have a goal of reining in the powers of local health departments to implement programs or enact ordinances without the approval of local governing bodies. That’s how many public spaces became smoke-free, a situation most people prefer. However, there is something to the idea that ordinances should be enacted by elected officials, not people who do not answer directly to voters — thus the provision in SB 334 that gives county commissions and sheriffs veto power over harm reduction programs.
Absent in much of this is the voice of the person who uses syringe exchange programs. Would this legislation help them or harm them?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people who inject drugs and use syringe exchanges are more likely to enter treatment for substance use disorder and stop injecting than those who don’t use an exchange.
The House needs to take a thorough look at this bill, but it also needs to look at programs that have worked, such as the one here, and at SB 334’s probable effects on people needing help before it goes along with the Senate’s action.