Senator looks to outlaw needle exchanges in W.Va.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Legislation has been introduced in the West Virginia Senate that would make it illegal to run a needle exchange in the state.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would outlaw syringe exchange programs in West Virginia.

Needle exchanges look to provide safe supplies to drug users by allowing them to trade in used needles for new, clean ones.

"It has become a public hazard and the fact of the matter is that we shouldn't be creating more of a public hazard around addiction," Sen. Eric Tarr said. "The effort was valiant and I understand that, but it's a failed experiment and it needs to go away."

Tarr said he has heard from constituents who have found or been stuck by needles from the exchange program. The bill he has introduced, Senate Bill 286, would immediately close all existing needle exchanges and prevent any new ones from opening.

"The risk of these needle exchanges is outweighing the benefits now, and I think it has been demonstrated over and over and over again that the state shouldn't allow it to happen anymore," Tarr said.

Exchange supporters said the centers help prevent the spread of diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV. Multiple areas of the state have seen outbreaks in those diseases over the past year.

"When you are dealing with lower socioeconomic populations, there is going to be a lot of drug use," Exchange Union President Shannon Hicks said. "We are not going to be able to eliminate drug use, but we can help eliminate the harms associated with some of the drug use."

The Exchange Union is a group of drug users working to improve safety around drugs. Hicks said there are already very few places across West Virginia where people can get clean needles without a prescription.

"Diseases are spread by people who have to share needles because there is no access to sterile syringes," Hicks said. "You take away the sterile syringes, and people don't stop injecting drugs. They just start sharing syringes."

"I think there needs to be a big education, but I think there is the responsibility of those who access the services to make sure the syringes are properly disposed of," Hicks said.

Tarr said needle exchange programs congregate drug users in areas where drug dealers can target and exploit them, and that eliminating the source could stop the problem.

The bill has been given to the Senate Health and Human Resources committee for review. If passed, it would immediately go into place and any needle exchanges still operating would face a fine up to $25,000.