West Virginia lawmakers weigh needle exchange regulations

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A West Virginia bill that would regulate needle exchange programs is poised to gain final approval in the Republican-controlled legislature. Critics have said more stringent requirements for the programs will constrain the number of providers who give clean syringes to injection drug users not able to quit the habit altogether.

Supporters said the legislation would help those addicted to opioids get connected to health care services fighting substance abuse. Participants would also need to show an identification card to get a syringe after an amendment was made in the Senate on Saturday, which passed it 27-7 and sent it back to the House of Delegates for potential final approval.

Republican Gov. Jim Justice has not publicly commented on the bill. An email to a spokesman was not immediately returned.

Republicans backing the bill said the changes were necessary due to some needle exchange programs “operating so irresponsibly” that they were causing syringe litter.

But the new rules would take effect amid one of the nation’s highest spikes in HIV cases related to intravenous drug use.

The surge, clustered primarily around the capital of Charleston and the city of Huntington, is being attributed at least in part to the cancellation in 2018 of a needle exchange program.

City leaders and first responders complained that the program in Kanawha County led to an increase in needles being left in public places and abandoned buildings, and it was shut down.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin on Monday submitted a congressional inquiry with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the county’s HIV outbreak.

The West Virginia Democrat asked for the inquiry on behalf of the Kanawha County Commission two months after a CDC official warned that the county’s outbreak was “the most concerning in the United States.”

The legislation would require licenses for syringe collection and distribution programs. Operators would have to offer an array of health outreach services, including overdose prevention education and substance abuse treatment program referrals.

Republican Sen. Mike Maroney said those “wraparound services” are the most important part of the bill.

Opponents say the bill’s stringent measures would force existing exchange programs to close. Democratic Sen. Ron Stollings called it a “knee jerk reaction to needle litter.”

Republican Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo said needle providers can cooperate with other organizations providing health outreach services in order to be in compliance with the proposed law.

Another provision would require syringes to be marked with the program passing them out. Takubo said that could help settle once-and-for-all the question of whether exchanges lead to litter.

On Friday, the House of Delegates added a provision that would give local governments the authority to bar certain groups or providers from setting up a needle exchange program.

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This story has been corrected to reflect that the bill has not passed the full legislature. The Senate amended the bill on Saturday morning, sending it back to the House for potential final approval before it can be transmitted to the governor for his signature.

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