Charleston begins to change needle exchange ordinance following investigation

Published: Jan. 15, 2021 at 12:17 AM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Charleston Police have seen an increase in needles left around the West Virginia’s capital city, but say there is nothing they can do to stop the distribution under current laws.

Police Chief Tyke Hunt is now asking the City Council and city attorney to make changes to the current needle exchange ordinance to protect first responders and the public.

“Let’s not forget that these needles are likely to be used in conjunction with illegal activity,” Councilman Adam Knauff said during Thursday night’s Public Safety committee meeting that included an update on the investigation. “I mean, this makes it inherently a public safety issue. That statement doesn’t even presume other public safety issues such as increased house fires, emergency room visits from accidental needle sticks or miscellaneously diverted police resources.”

The committee discussed introducing an amendment to the needle exchange ordinance that would allow the city to regulate the programs while still giving access to clean supplies for drug addicts.

That includes programs like the one run by non-profit group SOAR, that was investigated by police, looking to prevent even more unaccounted for needled from hitting the street.

“You’re already understaffed, we know you are underpaid,” Councilwoman Shannon Snodgrass said to Hunt. “So what do we do now? Are you going to throw all of your guys into this needle exchange mess? Because this isn’t going to be just SOAR, it’s going to be tractor-trailers full. It is going to be on every corner. You and I both know, everyone on this call knows that. We can shut our eyes and we can hope that the public is not going to notice. They’re going to notice.”

“You’re enabling these people,” Councilman Pat Jones said. “You are enabling every one of them and that is why I am against it. I was against it before and I am against it this time.”

Chief Hunt says this was the first investigation under the city’s needle exchange ordinance since it was passed in 2015. The ordinance looked to prevent harm reduction programs from being run in the city without meeting certain guidelines, including permission from the police chief. When the department completed its investigation and looked at filing charges, Hunt said it found the ordinance was not designed properly.

“We, the police department, did a thorough investigation,” Hunt said. “We are not part of the punitive or punishment side of it. We are not going to be the ones who say alright you are guilty and are going to jail. We have to be separate and alone from that, so as far as Charleston Police’s standpoint goes, we did our job. We got the facts in the hands of those who do take it to the point of punishment and it just did not meet the criteria.”

The committee cited HIV cases in Kanawha County, which have doubled over the past three years, as a major concern. DHHR data shows more than 80 percent of cases comes from people using needles to do drugs.

The council members are not sure what the proper course of action is to protect people from needles around the city while still lower HIV case numbers. Members are already drafting an amendment to the ordinance to help police enforce the law and plan to introduce it at the next council meeting on Jan. 19.

“If we want to change this ordinance, let’s take the onus on ourselves and stop talking about it and do something about it,” Councilwoman Jennifer Pharr said. “If it is written incorrectly and we want it to be written some other way, let’s do it.”

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