LOGAN — A resolution opposing the “creation, establishment or operation” of a needle exchange program in Logan County was adopted by county commissioners Monday, a little more than a month after they moved to begin drafting an ordinance to ban such operations within the county.
All three commissioners stood together in opposing a potential needle exchange program, and no one from the public spoke against the resolution. The only disagreements heard at the Monday meeting were between those who wanted an ordinance making needle exchanges illegal and those who believed a resolution would be enough to deter a program operating in the county.
Chris Trent, the victims advocate at the Logan County Sheriff’s Department, originally brought the idea for an ordinance banning needle exchanges to the County Commission on May 20. He said Monday that a resolution opposing the programs did not satisfy him.
“There’s no penalty, there’s none. If [a county agency] wanted to apply for grants for a needle exchange program, and start running it, what power is there to stop them?” Trent said.
Stephanie Abraham, the legal counsel for Logan County who drafted the resolution and the potential ordinance, said that, while a resolution has no law behind it, there are other mechanisms at play in the county that would prevent someone from operating it, and commissioners agreed.
Commission President Danny Godby said he doesn’t believe there is a chance that any other agency or department in Logan would pursue opening a needle exchange anytime soon.
“We’re all on board here — we have the health department, the sheriff’s department, the day report center, the representatives from the drug court — I’ve spoke to all of them, and they believe a resolution is the best way for us to go,” Godby said.
There has never been a needle exchange program operating in Logan County, and Steve Browning, administrator at the Logan County Health Department, has made it clear that — despite rumors circulating — there has never been an effort to open or secure funding for a needle exchange program.
In the past, the health department applied for harm-reduction grants that allowed money to be used for such programs, but did not specify that it was mandatory, and funds could be used for anything from hepatitis and HIV screenings to community education initiatives.
Commissioner Danny Ellis said after the meeting that, despite those assurances, he’s “heard some talk” in the community about potential needle exchange programs, which he believed made it necessary to act on that chance now, instead of waiting.
Ellis was the only commissioner to speak in favor of an ordinance, as opposed to a resolution, however Godby said he initially agreed. In the month since first looking at drafting an ordinance, Godby said he’d become “more educated” on the issue through meetings and talks with local stakeholders, none of which were at Monday’s meeting.
In May, Commissioner Willie Akers voted against drafting an ordinance, saying he believed there was no need to put a law on the books for a non-existent program. He said Monday, though, that a resolution would achieve the goals of the commissioners and the community well enough.
Proponents for banning needle exchange programs in Logan County as well as those who support a resolution but not an outlawing, have frequently cited the closure of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s program last year as a reason for not wanting one in their community. That closure has been heavily criticized, most recently in a study by Johns Hopkins University that said potentially hundreds of lives, as well as public safety, were even more at risk in Charleston after it lost its needle exchange.
Monday’s resolution cites several points that circulated in Charleston after the KCHD needle exchange was, initially temporarily, shut down last year — namely a concern for an increase in needle-stick injuries and the public health risk of dirty, discarded needles in the community.
Godby said that, when he hears “needle exchange,” all he can envision “are children, young children, playing on a playground surrounded by needles, you know, like you saw in Charleston.”
“I’ve never witnessed that myself, nothing like that, but you saw the images on TV — on WSAZ,” Godby said.
There are no documents that suggest or prove an increase in needle-stick injuries among the public in Charleston following the opening of the KCHD needle exchange. Additionally, there was not a notable trend in the number of public employees who suffered needle-stick injuries in that time, per a past Freedom of Information Act request by the Gazette-Mail.
Ellis said, despite the harm or good a needle exchange program could bring to the county, it wasn’t something he wanted to deal with after watching Charleston do so.
“I wish I could be up here talking about handing out jobs, rather than handing out needles,” Ellis said. “Whatever possibility we have of avoiding the issues that followed [KCHD’s program] I think we should take. We have other things to worry about here, and we have some of the best people fighting [the drug epidemic].”
Since May, when the Logan County Commission announced its plans to draft the ordinance banning needle exchanges, several officials in other counties reached out, interested in drafting similar legislation, or publicly stated how Logan’s move was influencing them.
In Cabell County, Commissioner Kelli Sobonya called last month for an audit for the Cabell-Huntington Health Department’s needle exchange program after receiving an influx of calls from residents who heard of Logan’s potential banning and who supported such.
Commissioners Monday recognized that, for Logan County, the resolution is what they believe is in the best interest of the people right now.
“I hope other counties will do the same work we did, if they want to follow, to make sure it’s what they need, what their people want,” Godby said. “Maybe all of us can get together one day and figure out the best way to handle all this. I don’t think anyone knows right now.”
By passing a resolution, Abraham said, if warranted in the future, the commission could choose to pass an ordinance instead.
“I’m coming at this from the legal standpoint, and I’ll be honest: At this time, I’m not sure if an ordinance is legally sound,” Abraham said. “I don’t like to walk back a law — that’s not the best way to run a county, and I didn’t want that to be the case here, if we had to.”
Godby said a resolution will give the commission and the community the freedom to adjust their opposition in the future, if need be, and that he is open to that possibility.
“We’re in the days of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone here,” Godby said. “We know it’s a problem, but it’s a new one and we’re not sure which way to go, so we’re going to go this way, based on all the people we’ve talked to and the things we’ve heard. We’re going to keep listening and, if we need to make a change in the future, I think we will.”