What follows is my email to WV Senate Representatives Baldwin, Woodrum, Tarr, Grady, and Nelson regarding this legislation.
Senators Baldwin, Woodrum, Tarr, Grady, and Nelson,
I am a resident and constituent in District 10 (Baldwin/Woodrum). Having just read SB334, I can only define this bill as a hunting license and open season on needle exchange programs in West Virginia.
Before I go further, I want to clarify some things about myself. I am not now nor have I ever been an IV drug user, I don’t work in drug recovery, rehabilitation, a needle exchange program, or healthcare. I’m not the survivor of someone who has died due to drug use or am I someone writing to you with a list as long as my arm of people I am trying to hold onto and hope make it out of drug use.
I am, however, a trained Naloxone administrator.
My partner and I became so on our anniversary last year. Some people go out for dinner and see a movie, take a cooking class, or do hundreds of other things together. We spent our anniversary, in the middle of a pandemic, in a zoom conference getting certified to administer Naloxone.
Because we see the tide of drug use growing all around us. We have realized that the next person who overdoses is just as likely to be a client, a relative, a friend, as it is to be any stranger walking down the street, even the street we live on.
That’s the WV we live in, that’s the WV we work in. And we have embraced becoming at least a tiny, potentially insignificant, part of the solution, instead of adding to the problem.
We became certified so that we can help, we carry Naloxone though we hope the need never arises. We hope for this tide to turn, and we hope to be able to, just as we look forward to the day we can leave our masks and hand sanitizer at home for a quick trip to the store, leave our Naloxone kits at home as well.
To Senator Tarr, and bill sponsors Senators Grady and Nelson, I can only say that you may as well have said in this bill, “drug users, leave the state, otherwise we want you to get HIV, HEPC, and/or abscesses and ultimately we hope you just die and take this problem with you. Also, we’re kind of cool with a bunch of other West Virginians dying to see that happen.”
This bill over legislates needle exchange programs to the point that they will effectively be unable to operate, at least not in meaningful ways, forcing all needle exchange programs in WV to become exactly like the WV Health Right program in Kanawha County which created the current HIV outbreak there.
A program that has been ripped apart again and again for its approach and its consequently low number of people that it has serviced due to its heavy handed approach, overly tight restrictions (county residency requirements, photo ID requirements, etc.), and it’s total departure from best practices (direct 1:1 vs 1:1+1 exchange, use of retractable needles, and inclusion of serial numbers on needles).
To clarify, created the problem as in they were the only (ineffective) program left standing after Danny Jones, mayor of Charleston, declared the Kanawha County Health Department’s program a “mini-mall for junkies and drug dealers,” and it became a war against the programs, eventually leading to the closure of the Kanawha County Health Department’s (effective) program.
Logan county commissioners then decided “you have to follow your heart in this situation,” and banned needle exchanges altogether.
Meanwhile a Cabell county commissioner is gunning to kill their county’s needle exchange program as well.
You have created legislation that says if a program continues to operate, they will be doing so at the pleasure of every single county commissioner and the county sheriff where they operate. If any one of those people says no, the program loses its license.
And that is assuming it continues to operate and people in the community don’t complain about the program.
And that is if any instance of discarded needles does not cause them to be fined out of existence.
And that is without any help from the state to operate.
And that is if their program can get federal grant money and private donations to operate considering it is now a program that stands in opposition to best practices in needle exchange harm reduction programs.
All of which leaves the state of WV sitting on a powder keg, with a lit fuse, headed toward a state health crisis on top of all the other problems we already had. Charleston and Kanawha County was already warned once when Health Right’s needle exchange was left the only program servicing it what would happen.
And it happened.
This legislation, if made law, will remove the greatest asset WV has in trying to turn the tide on drug use in the state.
Without access to properly run services for people with substance use disorder, you will be, and quite effectively, denying them healthcare including wound treatment and resources to protect their health, access to rehabilitation and recovery programs, blood testing, and directly contributing to encouraging the spread of disease throughout the state.
Please do not create for the entire state of WV the reality that Kanawha County is now facing, I urge you to not see the HIV outbreak in people with substance use disorder as a self-correcting problem, but as a warning of the major threat to the health and safety of our entire state that this legislation proposes.
Faces of Meth created an image of drug use and drug users, dirty, ugly, obvious, that doesn’t meet with reality. Drug users look like me, and you, partners and spouses, friends, neighbors, parents and children, coworkers, wherever we may work.
A needle being used until it breaks, doesn’t care whose arm it is going in or whose arm it just came out of, or the many arms before or after. Only we can do that. Only we can choose to have compassion and provide assistance to those with substance use disorder until they can make it out. Clean needles and the services of needle exchanges as a whole are compassion.
They are not enabling drug use; they are not encouraging drug use. They are enabling and encouraging health.
And the science is clear. Needle exchanges, properly run using best practices, connect people with resources, healthcare, dignity, and hope, in addition to clean needles that keep themselves–and our communities–healthy until they can get into recovery and out of drug use, and is a predictor of greater likelihood to enter recovery and rehabilitation, and a greater likelihood to avoid relapse.
If your true intent is to help the people of WV find a way out of drug use and protect the community from disease, this bill isn’t the way.
I hope this bill does not become law, and that if you support or were considering supporting it becoming law, you will seriously reconsider your position. We are not going to resolve “the drug problem” by criminalizing our way out of it. We are not going to do it by creating onerous burdens on needle exchanges. And we are not going to push drug use out of our cities, counties, and into another state though legislation that seeks to pretend the problem is with needles, when the true problem is with people.
People who don’t care, people who think shame, stigma, fear and fear mongering, and rejection of evidence based science in favor of moral ego stroking are going to work to reduce drug use in WV, when all it will do is turn blind eyes, deaf ears, cold hearts, empty hands, and slam doors in the faces of people who are suffering. And that’s when suffering spreads.
I encourage you to care. To get Naloxone administration training, and carry it with you everywhere you go. To be part of the solution. To talk to medical experts in addiction, recovery, rehabilitation, and policies related to the issues that WV faces with our growing substance use disorder problem. And to listen, wholeheartedly and with compassion, to the struggle we are up against and the ways we can move forward and help.
Joseph B. Arrington