Fighting the drug epidemic continues to be a top priority for lawmakers and public health officials in West Virginia. Yesterday, West Virginia School of Public Health hosted a panel on harm reduction – focusing on medical, law enforcement and community strategies around syringe exchange programs.
The panel began with presentations from the three experts – a New York physician researching drug use, HIV and hepatitis C, a WVU affiliated physician who talked about how to look for solutions when it’s hard to see a path forward and a law enforcement consultant with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.
The general premise? Harm reduction is a really effective way to reduce the spread of needle-born illnesses. But getting the community on board, including law enforcement officers, takes some work.
“We know in law enforcement you cannot arrest your way out of the substance abuse issue,” said North Carolina investigator Donnie Varnell.
Varnell has been instrumental in starting a program in North Carolina called law enforcement assisted diversion, or LEAD. The idea is to give police the discretion to redirect low-level drug offenders and prostitutes to community-based services, including treatment, rather than arresting them.
“Arresting them doesn’t help them,” he said. “It doesn’t make them stop and I think in law enforcement, you’ve seen this shift to divert people from incarceration into services.”
LEAD programs are becoming more popular across the country with operating partnerships in California, Oregon and Georgia among others. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources awarded eight 60,000 dollar grants last year to start LEAD services in southern West Virginia. Other states, including Kentucky are in process of developing and launching their own initiatives.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.