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Gazette-Mail editorial: Shutting down needle exchange made things worse

Unsurprisingly, a study published this week from Johns Hopkins University has found that shutting down the syringe exchange program operated by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department has increased the risk of the spread of diseases like hepatitis and HIV and will likely lead to more drug overdose deaths.

Closing the program was part of a one-two parting shot from former Mayor Danny Jones’ administration, whipping up unnecessary fear and increasing the stigma attached to drug users. The other part of that combo punch was Jones and his officials falsely inflating the number of homeless people in Charleston, attempting to criminalize and demonize them, instead of helping them.

Now, Charleston can see where going with fear and prejudice, rather than medical science and basic human decency, lands you.

Speaking to The Herald-Dispatch on Monday night, Dr. Sean Allen, lead researcher on the Johns Hopkins study, said those addicted to intravenous drugs “need to be treated with dignity and respect, and we need to destigmatize [drug use] and provide access to these resources.”

Allen said the study found individuals who used the program felt “abandoned by the community and city leadership when it closed.”

Those who supported shutting the program down talked about discarded needles that could be found about town and the hazard they posed. That is true, but it’s also true that the needles were there before the exchange opened and can still be found after it closed.

It’s been stated time and again, and remains true, that West Virginia is the center of the opioid epidemic, where once pain pills flowed and were gradually replaced by cheaper and more deadly alternatives, like heroin and fentanyl. Most of the state realized long ago that those in the throes of addiction are not criminals or vagrants to be locked up or shunned, but human beings who need help. For whatever reason, Charleston and Kanawha County broke away from that universal understanding at a time when 400 individuals a week were using the program to get clean syringes.

Now, as participants in the study noted, several people are sharing the same needle, which is then discarded for another to come along and use.

It’s true that needle exchanges are not an ideal or complete solution to the drug problem. But it’s also true that they help stem the tide of infectious disease and place users in contact with people who can help, either by providing them with life-saving Naloxone or getting them into a treatment program.

For the health of the overall population, and the lives of those struggling with addiction, it’s time for Charleston and Kanawha County to take another look at harm reduction.