The only syringe service program (SSP) in Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, is officially approved to stay open. The final decision lay with the Charleston City Council—as required under a new law that places onerous restrictions on SSP. The programs give sterile syringes to people who inject drugs, preventing the sharing of needles that leads to HIV or hepatitis C transmissions, among other services and supports.
On December 6, the Council unanimously approved West Virginia Health Right (WVHR), a nonprofit health care provider, to continue operating an SSP from two locations in the city. Under Senate Bill 334, signed by Governor Jim Justice earlier this year, all SSP must receive approval from local elected officials, health departments and sheriffs. WVHR gained approval from Kanawha County officials back in November, so this was the final step it needed to comply. WVHR is the first SSP in the state to seek approval under SB 334’s requirements.
“Those that are in need of these services, [WVHR CEO Angie Settle] has implemented a great program there, and it would be wonderful for others to take heed and notice what she does there,” said Councilor Jeanine Faegre at the meeting.
Elected officials at the city and state levels have for years been working to undermine or shut down SSP.
The city’s approval comes as Charleston and Kanawha County grapple with the worst HIV outbreak in the nation, related primarily to injection drug use. As early as 2015, the CDC flagged the state of West Virginia as highly vulnerable to this health crisis. Paradoxically, elected officials at the city and state levels have for years been working to undermine or shut down SSP.
Besides giving out sterile syringes and disposing of used ones, WVHR offers HIV and hepatitis C testing, substance use disorder treatment, and referrals to other social services. It gives syringes on a “one-to-one” basis, meaning each participant can only obtain one sterile syringe per used syringe they return—something that’s now a requirement under SB 334.
The alternative would be needs-based distribution, meaning people can take home as many sterile syringes as they want. Scientific consensus—including from the CDC—is that this is the most effective model for preventing bloodborne disease.
WVHR declined Filter’s request for comment, citing current pressures of dealing with COVID-19 vaccinations.
Harm reduction advocates in West Virginia and nationwide have condemned SB 334—which was passed in April but took effect in July following a lawsuit—as a political attack on SSP.
As well as all the approvals required and the “one-to-one” distribution mandate, the law compels programs to obtain photo ID from participants, and all syringes handed out must be marked with a serial number. Crippling financial penalties can be imposed on SSP that don’t comply.
In November, local news outlet WCHS reported that of 16 certified SSP statewide at the time SB 334 took effect, at least five had since shut down or suspended services.
Photograph by Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard