Roanoke could have a needle exchange up and running as early as this summer. That comes after more than a year of standoff between health officials and the Chief of Police.
Roanoke Chief Tim Jones wouldn’t give his support to a needle exchange because he felt it encouraged illegal activity. But after finally meeting in person with a coalition of local officials earlier this month, the group came to an agreement.
“Actually we weren’t that far apart,” Jones said in a phone interview Wednesday. “They understood kind of where I was as the position of the Chief of Police trying to ensure that there were established parameters for the safety of the participant and the safety of the community at large.”
State lawmakers gave the green-light for needle exchanges two years ago, but stipulated that local law enforcement had to be on board. That's proven to be a barrier in many localities.
Jones initially had issue with being asked to grant legal immunity to people found with needles if they could demonstrate that they participate in the exchange. Colin Dwyer, with Roanoke’s Drop-In Center, says they were able to strike that language from the Chief's letter of support.
Now that the Chief has agreed to sign the letter, the Drop-In Center can finalize its application to the state. Dwyer is relieved.
“We knew that there was a tool out there available to kind of better help the risk populations that we work with everyday,” Dwyer said. “ It was within reach but we weren’t able to get to (it).”
Dwyer says the group still has to get formal approval from city council, but he doesn't anticipate that being an issue. He hopes they can have a mobile program up and running by mid summer.
There are already needle exchanges in Wise and Smyth Counties, as well as in Richmond. An official with the Virginia Department of Health says there are aren’t any other applications for programs in, although 55 localities statewide are eligible.
Studies show that providing clean needles prevents the spread of Hepatitis, and can help connect those with addiction disorders to medical support.