After a months-long investigation, the Charleston Police Department reported Wednesday there is nothing illegal about community health group Solutions Oriented Addiction Response providing clean needles to people who inject drugs.
Charleston Police Chief Tyke Hunt said Thursday that harm reduction programs should not be under the authority of police, but rather medical professionals.
“When you’re looking at a big picture like harm reduction, the chief of police shouldn’t be the person in charge,” Hunt said. “I — the police — should only be enforcement.”
The investigation into SOAR started in October, after a WCHS-TV report brought the group’s syringe program to Hunt’s attention.
City code includes an ordinance passed under former Mayor Danny Jones’ administration making it illegal to distribute hypodermic needles without a state license or approval from the city’s chief of police.
Jones presented the law in March 2018 as he and some local news media railed against what Jones described as failures and safety concerns within the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s syringe program, which was soon shut down.
Hunt wrote in the Wednesday report that no “loose interpretation” of the code should “bear any semblance of an abuse of authority.” He said he will be working with City Attorney Kevin Baker to revise the ordinance, however it’s unclear in what way.
SOAR’s program is the only one in Kanawha County that meets best-practice standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on syringe programs. It is need-based and no-barrier, which are considered staples of best-practice programs. Health experts from across the state and beyond have endorsed the program.
Yet, at a Thursday meeting of the city’s Public Safety Committee, a number of City Council members made questionable assertions about best-practice harm reduction and the reality of what happens with IV drug use in Charleston and Kanawha County.
Several claimed children often are stuck by needles in the area. Two reports can be found from 2018, before SOAR distributed needles, and one report exists from October 2020, when a child found a needle in the HealthRight parking lot and allegedly was stuck twice. SOAR, which paused its distribution while the investigation was ongoing in hopes of working with the city, was not distributing needles at that time. No agency, state or local, tracks needle sticks among the general public.
Many criticized SOAR for not prioritizing recovery over needle distribution. At SOAR’s biweekly events, a table is lined with pamphlets on recovery, substance abuse, mental health and other topics. Several volunteers with the program work as recovery coaches.
More importantly, experts agree that recovery is not the goal of any harm reduction program. Instead, the experts say, they are meant to build relationships with vulnerable populations and, literally, help reduce the harm against people who use drugs.
Councilwoman Deanna McKinney said Thursday she does not support the program, believes it could harm the West Side and has never seen any evidence from the area about increased HIV or hepatitis rates tied to intravenous drug use.
In 2018, there were less than four HIV cases tied to IV drug use in Kanawha County, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources. In 2019, there were 15 and, in 2020, a record 32 HIV cases in the county were tied to drug use. That could potentially be an undercount, as there was less HIV testing in 2020 because of COVID-19 than in previous years. This is well-documented, and KCHD has operated an HIV task force for more than a year in response to the increase.
Several City Council members, including Shannon Snodgrass, Pat Jones and Bruce King, said Thursday a large concern is protecting first responders and civilians from needle litter and sticks.
Twenty needle-stick injuries were recorded among Charleston city employees over the past three years, eight in 2018, two in 2019 and 10 last year, according to incident reports filed with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Five cases involved people being stuck while searching belongings. Most cases were punctures from uncapped needles in trash or people pricked while disposing of or bagging needles.
From January to November 2020, there were fewer than 120 calls to Kanawha Metro 911 for needle pick-ups in the county.
Some at Thursday’s meeting said HealthRight’s syringe program should be the standard for the area, but that program does not meet a number of best-practice standards, and several people who rely on syringe exchange programs have said they don’t feel comfortable using the agency.
It’s unclear what will happen in coming weeks as the city deals with how to move forward with harm reduction in the region. Councilman King, who does not support the program, said he plans to introduce new legislation at the next City Council meeting regarding needle distribution.