A year after a lawmakers made it possible for localities to set up needle exchanges, only one program is up and running.
A law passed by the General Assembly in 2017 allows 55 localities around the state to create a system so drug users can drop off used syringes and get access to clean ones. The hope is to stem rising Hepatitis C rates, and to also get people in the door for education, counseling, and testing.
The programs are referred to as Comprehensive Harm Reduction strategies, or CHR’s.
But according to a report written by the Virginia Department of Health and submitted to lawmakers and the Governor this week, the state has only approved two sites so far and only one of those is up and running.
The first program began in Wise County this summer. In its first month of operation, a dozen people were served. Most were unemployed women who used, among other drugs, prescription opioids.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, the clinic in Wise has also already distributed multiple naloxone kits, two of which have already been used to reverse an overdose. The exchange has also collected more needles than it distributed.
“I think that there are long standing problems with injection in the community and that people have needed the service for a long time,” says Diana Jordan with the Virginia Department of Health.
Jordan says the VDH has approved an additional site to be run out of the free clinic Health Brigade in Richmond and that they are in the final stages of preparing to open. The Virginia Department of Health has only received one other application, says Jordan, which the department is still reviewing.
Studies show needle exchanges help decrease drug use, but there has still been resistance from some community members and law enforcement.
Having drug paraphernalia - like syringes - is illegal in Virginia. While the law protects staff of a needle exchange, it doesn’t protect participants. That’s been a catch for law enforcement, who have to give their approval before a program can start.
In Roanoke the city’s police chief has withheld his support for a needle exchange there. Colin Dwyer is program coordinator at the Drop In Center, a community health clinic. Dwyer has been working on an application, but he can’t get approval without support from law enforcement.
“You know public health and public safety have to work together, they’re kind of two sides of the same coin,” says Dwyer.
In their recent report, the Virginia Department of Health says similar barriers have faced other localities. That’s been one reason it’s taken so long to get the exchanges up and running.
The report recommends lawmakers reconsider Virginia law to provide protections for people using needle exchange services.
“Adopting these protections would address the conflict identified by some members of the law enforcement community and address a barrier,” reads the report.
The law allowing for the pilot programs will sunset after three years. The hope initially was to collect data and learn more about their efficacy of the programs before the end of the three year period.
“VDH is concerned that, without an extension of the law prior to that date, the agency will not have enough time to educate, train, and mobilize communities to provide CHR services in eligible areas of the state,” reads the report.