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W.Va. lawmakers pass bill to require licensing for needle exchange programs

Published: Mar. 9, 2021 at 10:52 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Charleston and Huntington are some of the cities leading the nation when it comes to overdose deaths and the spread of diseases like HIV, hepatitis C and B. Most state lawmakers agree there is a need for harm reduction programs across the state. But how the program is operated is where heavy debates set in.

On Tuesday, the Senate passed bill 334 which would require any needle exchange program in West Virginia to obtain a license through the state.

“It creates a licensure process for needle exchange programs,” said Republican State Sen. Eric Tarr from Putnam County, who is lead sponsor on the bill. “Presently in West Virginia, you have no regulation whatsoever on needle exchange program. We license people who wash your hands, people who serve you food, you have to get a license if you want to go hunting or fishing in West Virginia but if you’re going to go out and distributing needles to intervene as drug users, there is no regulation right now in West Virginia.”

There are a number of requirements and regulations throughout the bill that a program must have in order to acquire a license. Some of those requirements include having HIV and STD screening, offering long-term birth control and drug abuse treatment at every visit. It also would require a one-to-one model, meaning when one needle is given to a person, that same person must return that needle to get a new one.

“There are some programs that do this really, really well and the intent of those programs is to reduce disease transmission and to also get people into rehab,” Tarr told WSAZ. “So they do HIV testing, hep C testing, they have birth control measures, counseling available then they have a path to get people into rehab if they so choose in some programs. Now, not all the programs do that, some of them are just flat out needle dispensaries.”

Tarr said if this bill is passed into law, it would only require programs to obtain a license if they wish to run a needle exchange program. If a facility only wishes to have a harm reduction program without the needle exchange, they do not need to require a license.

The bill would also require a “letter of support” from the county commission and the sheriff.

“Every sheriff in 55 counties, if the sheriff doesn’t want it, it’s not there,” said Democratic State Sen. Ron Stollings from Boone County. “They have veto power.”

Stollings, who is also a medical doctor, said the bill would make it nearly impossible for facilities to get the approval of a license.

“HIV (and) AIDS, we have the two most significant outbreaks in the United States of America in Huntington and Charleston and we are getting ready to pour gasoline on a fire with the passage of the way Senate Bill 334 is,” Stollings said. “It is way (too) restrictive and, again, nobody likes to see needle litter and nobody likes to deal with people with substance use disorder, people who use IV drugs but they are there (and) we know how to help them.”

“Personally, if we outlawed them, I’d be OK because I think they bring more harm than they do good,” Tarr said, “but there is some good that can come from them, I see that. I’m not blind to that, so this is a compromise between those two positions.”

The bill will now go to the House for review.

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