Community Turns Out For Charleston’s Harm Reduction Ordinance
The Charleston City Council has postponed a vote on whether to regulate syringe service programs operating in the city.
The council met Monday night in part to consider a local bill that would potentially criminalize harm reduction programs happening in the capital city.
The topic brought out a crowd of more than 100 people, many who took to the podium to speak to their elected officials. Doctors, clergy, those in recovery and those who love someone with a substance use disorder spoke out against the bill.
They told the council that this bill could shut down the life saving efforts of Solutions Oriented Addiction Response, or SOAR. The Charleston based grassroots group hands out overdose reversal medications and clean syringes at its Saturday health fairs in a West Side church parking lot.
Cathy Kunkel, who volunteers for SOAR, told council members that the group offers compassion and second chances to some of Charleston's most vulnerable.
“I talk to people that are grateful to be treated as if their lives matter. And that is why harm reduction programs work. By getting people in the door without stigma, SOAR is able to provide access to Naloxone, HIV testing and treatment referrals,” Kunkel said.
SOAR volunteers and supporters say the stakes couldn’t be higher. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Kanawha County has the “most concerning” HIV outbreak in the nation.
Joe Machin and the Kanawha County Commission filed a congressional inquiry into the full evidence the CDC has on the outbreak.
Dr. Shelda Martin said she’s seen the number of HIV cases worsen in her daily work. She is director of CAMC’s Ryan White Program, which provides services and primary care to those with HIV.
“So far this year at SOAR events, we've tested 120 patients, nine are positive. Compare that to thousands of tests we've done in the last 20 years, where we find one or two positives [a year],” Martin said. “What I'm saying is as an HIV provider, in this community, I have never seen this.”
Martin and the CDC say syringe service programs are essential to curbing the spread of HIV and other blood-borne illnesses.
But West Side residents spoke in favor of more regulation. Christy Day said she supports efforts to help those with substance use disorder. But she asks why this program would operate in her neighborhood without her input.
“That was wrong, that was not neighborly,” she said.
Day noted that needle distribution isn’t happening in some of Charleston’s more affluent neighborhoods.
“If we want to have SOAR, that's fine,” Day said. “Let’s take it to the South Hills, let’s take it to the East End. Open it up. Let’s have more distribution, not just in my neighborhood.”
The bill is a rewrite of current city code. Previously, the city police chief had to deem a harm-reduction program lawful to continue operating. New code would take the chief out of the decision-making process. Instead, programs would need to obtain a state license and abide by a limited one-to-one needle exchange.
The city council voted 14-12 to postpone the bill. Council members cited impending state legislation that could conflict with the city ordinance. State legislators are still considering Senate Bill 334, which would also regulate syringe service programs. That bill passed the Senate and is now in the House judiciary committee.
The council will take up the bill again on April 19.