A bill proposed in the state Senate would increase regulations on needle exchange programs.
The bill proposed by Senator Eric Tarr of Putnam County would make the amount of needles returned to clinics equal to the amount of needles handed out.
The original version of the proposed bill would have outlawed needle exchange programs outright, which is a change that critics say would be harmful to public health.
In response, WVU began monitoring the bill out of fear that stigmatization and criminalization of syringe possession would drive people away from free needle exchange clinics. Currently, the fine for someone arrested on drug paraphernalia charges could run as high as $500.
“I can only speak to the research I have done,” said Steve Davis, associate professor of public health at WVU. “Criminalization of syringes has created a situation where an exchange cannot happen due to fear of arrest.”
A study conducted by Davis concluded that participants in needle exchange programs (NEPs) often received citations for possessing clean needles, despite clinics asking law enforcement not to prosecute possessors of clean needles in specific circumstances.
While these citations did not result in jail time, the prosecution created confusion among participants and set up a major barrier to program success.
Proponents of these clinics state that the availability of clean needles stems the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV.
According to a study in part conducted at WVU, the five years between 2010 and 2015 alone saw a 98% increase in cases of Hepatitis C, while 60% to 70% of these cases occurred in injection drug users.
A National Center for Biotechnology Information report has stated that cases of HIV, the other major danger of used needles, have decreased by 33% in the case of a New Haven, Connecticut program.
“It has been noted that the greatest benefits for people with mental health and addiction problems will be derived from providing better evidenced-based care in relation to medication, substitution therapies and abstinence programs, as well as addressing underlying social problems arising from homelessness and criminalization,” stated a study conducted at WVU. “Our findings provide strong evidence that OST and in combination with high-coverage NSP should be expanded to prevent the transmission of [Hepatitis C] and reduce associated morbidity and mortality.”
Milan Puskar Healthright’s LIGHT (Living In Good Health Together) Program is one such needle exchange program operating in Morgantown.
Part of its stated mission is to provide clean supplies and resource referrals in a non-judgemental manner. It has been operating for five years in West Virginia, a state where 460,000 needles went unaccounted for last year alone.