On November 4, the only syringe service program (SSP) in West Virginia’s capital city of Charleston received approval from Kanawha County officials to keep operating. But unless it is also approved by the City Council, it will be forced to close. This is the result of new restrictions, signed into law earlier this year, that have endangered SSP throughout the state.
In April, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (R) signed into law Bill 334, which imposes strict requirements on all SSP—with heavy penalties if they don’t comply. Bill 334 mandates, for example, that all SSP be approved in writing by local elected officials, health officials and sheriffs. Another barrier is its requrement that all participants provide photo identification.
The law was the brainchild of Senator Eric Tarr, who went on record in the past calling SSP a “failed experiment.” It withstood a legal challenge from advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union, and eventually took effect in July.
The result, according to local outlet WCHS, is that of 16 certified SSP statewide, five have already shut down or suspended service. Another seven are seeking to be licensed under the new state guidelines. The remaining four have not yet publicly disclosed their plans. (Local harm reductionists contacted by Filter were not able to confirm these numbers by publication time.)
Decision Now Rests With City Officials
At a November 4 meeting, the elected Kanawha County Commission unanimously agreed to write a letter of support for West Virginia Health Right (WVHR)—a nonprofit health care provider that operates throughout the state. It runs a syringe program from two locations in Charleston.
During the meeting, County Commission President Kent Carper accurately noted that WVHR runs “a program with a treatment goal.” The program’s CEO, Angie Settle, highlighted the broad harm reduction purpose of its SSP, saying every patient at every visit is offered health care services without being forced to accept.
WVHR is the first SSP in the state to seek local approval after passage of Bill 334. According to Settle’s testimony, it retrieves 98 percent of the syringes it distributes, and 33 percent of its participants go on to enter substance use disorder treatment.
Settle also mentioned that every syringe distributed has “an industrial adhesive barcode” and packing tape on it. This is an effort to comply with a requirement under Bill 334 that each syringe “is unique to the syringe services program,” and that SSPs have “the ability to track each needle by unique serial number.”
Requiring SSPs to mark each syringe they give out with a serial number is a counterproductive requirement, absorbing time and resources and meaning that sterile syringes must be unwrapped before distribution, doing nothing to make anyone safer.
WVHR also observes a “one-to-one” practice, distributing only one new syringe for every one a participant returns. This is yet another barrier now required under state law, and endangers people who use drugs. The scientific consensus, including from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is that SSP should give out as many syringes as participants need. Anything less fails to minimize the chances of someone reusing or sharing a syringe, risking HIV or hepatitis C transmissions.
WVHR did not respond to Filter’s request for comment, saying it is currently focused on addressing COVID-19 vaccination and not taking media requests. A decision from the Charleston City Council’s meeting on November 18 will now determine whether the organization’s SSP can continue to operate.
Charleston’s History of Attacking Syringe Programs
In spring 2018, Charleston shut down its county-run syringe service program. Then-Mayor Daniel Jones attacked the SSP as a “needle mill.”
In the years since, legal syringe distribution has faced increasing challenges in the city and county. In October 2020, a grassroots, community-run SSP, SOAR West Virginia, was investigated by Charleston police for giving out syringes without state certification.
The police closed that investigation with no charges in January 2021. But around the same time, a bipartisan group of City Council members proposed an ordinance that would further restrict syringe distribution, by making it illegal for any groups not certified by the state government.
Predictably and tragically, Kanawha County has become a national epicenter for a disturbing surge in HIV cases.