In Charleston, the past few years, we’ve argued among ourselves about how best to combat drug addiction in our neighborhoods.
As a former baseball coach, I’ve had to go through fields before practices to search for and remove needles. When I worked at CVS, I had to be careful taking out the trash, to avoid being injured by discarded needles. And I have lost people to drug overdoses. Everyone in West Virginia has.
Anytime a problem seems too big and too emotionally charged to solve, we seem to devolve into factionalism, casting blame and pointing fingers. But we are all interested in solving this problem, and only by coming together as a community, can we do so.
Should we engage in a harm reduction program or not? This is the choice before us. A harm reduction program tries to reduce or eliminate the secondary effects of intravenous drug use, such as HIV and hepatitis. These are lifetime diseases with no cure, and they are very pricey to address. Each case of HIV costs approximately $500,000 per person infected. Currently, Charleston has one of the worst HIV outbreaks in the United States, localized within our IV substance-use population.
People generally get the idea of harm reduction, but they hate (rightfully so) the needle litter. Getting rid of the harm reduction program will lead to a huge spike in HIV cases and a massive bill (tens of millions of dollars) to correct. A better approach is to keep the harm reduction program but take cost-effective steps to eliminate needle litter. Some common sense approaches:
- Put up needle collection bins everywhere. We have public trash cans, which historically helped reduce public litter. And we have public ashtrays for the same purpose. We need public needle collection bins. We can design them so they are locked and impossible to break into.
- Remove the criminal penalty for possession of needles. What’s the first thing somebody will do if stopped by the cops? Dump the evidence. That contributes to needle litter.
- Supply needle-proof gloves to all city workers who handle trash. You can even make these available to those in the general public who want a pair. This would greatly eliminate the fear of a needle prick.
This is a cost-effective solution that solves both parties’ problems. This is the art of governance — finding solutions that meet the needs of all parts of our community.