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'You Don't Sacrifice A Whole City' Over Needle Exchange, West Virginia Mayor Says

Hypodermic needles are disposed of at a clinic, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
Hypodermic needles are disposed of at a clinic, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

Since the opioid crisis took off in the U.S., cities across the country have added more and more needle exchange programs, which allow people with addiction to turn in used syringes for new, clean ones.

Most researchers say such programs are effective at reducing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. However, some cities — including Charleston, West Virginia, where opioid use is pervasive — have moved to close their needle exchanges, citing problems with crime and mismanagement.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Mayor Danny Jones about why he supports the suspension of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department needle exchange.

Interview Highlights

On problems he’s seeing with the needle exchanges

“We have two needle exchanges in Charleston. One is operated by Health Right, and they have 150 patients. And it’s operated in a fashion that is correct. And they did so well, they operated under the radar. We didn’t even know they were doing it. Then the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department got in the business, and they just basically became a mill. And they were giving out 40,000 to 50,000 needles in a month. Now, if you go to 400 patients in one day, then there’s no way you can check their blood before you give them the needles to find out if they have any disease before you give them the needles.”

On the issues associated with the demand for needles

“They came from 190 different ZIP codes, and we became a hub of activity. Now to get the money to buy the drugs, the drug users have to break into somebody’s car or cause crimes. Since we became a mecca for these folks, it wasn’t a needle exchange. It was a needle mill. And crime in this city skyrocketed. So what we did was we imposed some rules on them that they had to live with that were very similar to the Health Right rules. They couldn’t live with them. They shut it down. And now the crime has gone way down in Charleston, West Virginia, because we were able to close that needle operation.”

On the needle exchange centers, and the idea that people may be able to get other health care treatment there

“That’s not what happened here. They only had a 1 percent rate* of people going into recovery — where Health Right, which is the one that I actually contribute my own personal money to, and they have a needle exchange, they have more like a 10 percent return rate on people that go into recovery. You see, when we have such an uptick in crime because of this needle situation in our city, they don’t call some professor in Southern California. They call us. Since we shut down the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, or since they shut down their own needle operation, crime has dropped precipitously.”

*John Law, a spokesman for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said that of its 4,000 needle exchange clients, more than 150 sought treatment, or 3.75 percent.

On what happened to those who were using the exchange

“They went back to wherever they came from. Maybe one of those 190 ZIP codes. Or they could go down to Health Right, where the entrance is a little more cumbersome, but they would be more likely to get into recovery. And they would be tested for disease before they go. And I don’t know how you can quantify whether a person has [hepatitis] C if you don’t test them for it before you give them the needle.”

On encouraging other counties to host needle exchanges

“I’m sure you can find many academics that think this is a good idea, but it certainly didn’t work out there near Angel Stadium in Southern California. And there are places — they’re shutting down around the country, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody.”

On what can be done

“If you really want to know, I mean, the drug companies got us into this mess when they flooded this state, of all states, with millions of these pills. So then they shut the pill mills down, they put the doctors in jail, they shut down the drug stores and there was no plan B for the drug addict. And that expense, and whatever needs to be done for these folks, should be incurred and paid for by the people that caused it. And if that meant that you would have prescribed drugs to wean people off, that was administered by a hospital, that’s something worthy of having a conversation about.”

On prescription heroin as a solution

“I would look at it. I think that if we’re going to have a conversation about something, I mean that’s something that would open up a dialogue about something reasonable. Don’t just give them the vessel and let them have to go out and buy it illegally. I mean, this should be handled by professionals. And if the academics really want to push something, maybe this could be experimented with from around the country.”

On his son’s experience with drug use

“I believe it started, without exposing myself to liability here, it started in his home, in the environment he was raised in. And it wasn’t by me. I was not married to his mother. And in the environment where he’s was born in, drugs were readily available. And he told me, later on, that he started using drugs at a very early age. And then he had teeth problems, and he was able to get some pain medication. And I think he was off to the races then.

“He stopped because he kept going to jail. I had him arrested twice. I have 160 police officers that work for me. The last time, though, it wasn’t police in this county. It was police in another county. This is the third time he’s been in front of a judge to plead guilty. But he’s in recovery now and he is, as I understand, he’s doing OK. He’s 28 years old. But you reach a point as a father of an addict, you can’t let your whole world become a set of dominoes because you have a son. Life goes on for all of us. And I’ll tell you: Jail saved his life, which is sad.”

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