Syringe Distribution Meets City Roadblock Amid Ordinance Concerns
A volunteer-run harm-reduction group in the city of Charleston called SOAR has come under fire from city officials for distributing syringes as part of its “mobile outreach” efforts.
A representative from SOAR (Solutions Oriented Addiction Response) says group members started distributing syringes some time after the 2018 shutdown of the Kanawha Charleston Health Department syringe program.
SOAR shut down its program three weeks ago after the city’s police chief claimed they were violating a municipal ordinance. However, the city’s ordinance may not actually prohibit anyone from distributing syringes.
Every two weeks, SOAR sets up tables in a church parking lot to provide free services to anyone that wants them. People come to get anything from rapid-HIV testing and wound treatment, to a cup of hot chocolate and a conversation. Volunteers pass out supplies like Naloxone, snacks, and condoms. Until three weeks ago, these supplies included sterile syringes for anyone who needed them. People, like Tommy, who lives in the streets.
Tommy spoke out about the problem on Thanksgiving, sitting under a bridge in Charleston. Tommy said now that SOAR has stopped giving out sterile syringes, he’s had to Macgyver his old needles in order to reuse them.
“I had to take a matchbook because you use the striker as your sandpaper to try to sharpen the end of that needle back.”
As he talked, Tommy took out two syringes -- a clean one and an old one that he’s tried to sharpen back into shape. Despite his efforts, the old syringe looked a little crooked. To demonstrate how dull his old needle was, he jabbed it against a plastic bag he was holding in his other hand.
“Well, you see how it’s bent? I mean, it was a ‘Z’ the other day.” Holding up the old syringe, he said, “I had no choice, but to use this. It barely goes through the plastic.”
Tommy said when access to clean syringes dries up, people often resort to buying used ones. “You've got this black market out here where you’re buying a used needle. Now, yeah, you're trying to bleach it. You're trying to -- but where'd it come from?”
Experts say limiting access to needles doesn’t impact addictions.
"In 20 years of doing this work, I've never met a person who said: If I didn't have access to sterile syringes, I would stop injecting," said Robin Pollini, a researcher at WVU, who holds a Ph.D. in public health from Johns Hopkins. "It just doesn't work that way.”
Pollini says this isn’t the first time the City of Charleston has shut down a harm reduction program. In 2018, the Kanawha- Charleston Health Department’s sterile syringe program closed its doors after the city put restrictions on it -- restrictions, she says, that prevented the program from operating according to best practices as outlined by the CDC.
“They were serving a very large number of people, which is what you want these programs to do, because you need to have enough people having access to sterile syringes, to reduce the transmission of disease.”
The WV Center on Budget & Policy recently released a report that confirms Pollini’s point. The study looked at HIV transmission from people reusing needles in Kanawha County. It found the rate of HIV transmission started going up 2018, the same year the KCHD’s syringe program shut down. As of October 2020, the transmission rate had increased by more than five times since the shutdown of the city’s program.
The report also showed that statewide the number of fatal overdoses from all drugs was down 15 percent over the past three years, in contrast to Kanawha County where the number has been rising steadily.
“Here's a perfect case study of when you restrict these programs, and reduce the number of people who can use them, you are not effective in preventing disease in the community,” Pollini said.
According to Pollini, SOAR was picking up the city’s slack. But in recent interviews Mayor Amy Goodwin and Police Chief James Hunt have said SOAR’s syringe program was violating a municipal ordinance. The ordinance says that any person distributing syringes in Charleston has to first get “any and all licenses required under state law.” Hoyt Glazer, an attorney in Huntington, says there’s just one problem with the ordinance.
“At this point, I don't see there's any statute that requires licensure,” Glazer said of the W.Va. State Code.
Glazer says there is no license required by the state for people to distribute syringes. In fact, the state guidelines for syringe programs don’t even use the word “license.”
“It uses the word certification. A certification is different than licensing. And, I'm not aware of any statute that requires an entity to have actual licensing in order to go forward with the distribution of the syringes.”
He adds that anyone being told they can’t distribute syringes by city officials could have grounds to sue.
“If they're going to challenge the person or program that's providing the syringes, a person could possibly challenge that and make arguments that it was a violation of their rights to distribute materials that are not otherwise prohibited by the criminal code.”
The city's attorney responded to West Virginia Public Broadcasting by saying that the city council may move to amend the ordinance in the future. The WV-ACLU, which represents SOAR, says it doesn’t currently plan to sue the city. In fact, a representative from SOAR says his organization is “eager to work hand in hand with the city to address public health and safety for our whole community.”
Under a bridge in downtown Charleston, Tommy said that “whole community” includes people like him—people who are suffering from addiction. In the weeks since SOAR stopped giving out syringes, Tommy says he’s seen someone pay $6 for another person’s used syringe. In recent weeks, he’s even had to use a set of pliers he carries with him, to remove a broken needle from a friend’s arm -- a common occurrence when using old syringes, he said.
“They've got no choice but to use something that should have been retired last week.” According to Tommy, the problem of drug addiction isn’t going to be solved by taking resources away from people who inject drugs.
“Yes, there’s a problem. But, closing [syringe programs] down or turning your back to is not going to change the problem. Problem’s still here.”
Until sterile syringes are made accessible again, Tommy says a lot of his friends will still be here, too -- on the streets of Charleston.