Charleston police say a group operating a grassroots needle exchange did nothing wrong.
The Wednesday morning announcement follows a criminal investigation into the nonprofit — Solutions Oriented Addiction Response, or SOAR. Charleston Police Chief James “Tyke” Hunt told Mountain State Spotlight that SOAR is free to continue providing needle exchange services to residents living with substance use disorder.
“As we currently stand right now, they are not in any violation [of the law] when they distribute syringes,” Hunt said.
But as HIV rates linked to injection drug use climb, the future of needle distribution in Charleston remains up in the air. Hunt says the law should be changed to move it under the jurisdiction of medical professionals and Mayor Amy Goodwin has made similar statements.
But it’s unclear what Goodwin, her police chief, or the City Council will do now or when they might act.
Currently, a city ordinance intends to give the police chief authority to govern needle distribution services in the city. But the ordinance is loosely written, creating loopholes and ample room for interpretation.
In a report disclosing the findings of the investigation, Hunt wrote, “The Charleston Police Department will continue to uphold our laws and support the constitution. In doing so, I cannot let a loose interpretation of terms bear any semblance of an abuse of authority … Needle distribution is an issue that requires immediate attention; I will be working with the City Attorney to revise the City Ordinance to properly address the issue.”
The paragraph has raised questions about whether or not Hunt seeks to tighten the ordinance in order to outlaw SOAR’s distribution. But Hunt says he supports harm reduction services and the regulation of such shouldn’t be up to law enforcement.
“I should not be the oversight or authority for a medical program,” Hunt said. “Whatever the state deems legal and the medical experts deem sufficient and proper is what I’ll have to stand by.”
Those comments follow a Mountain State Spotlight investigation which found that in the past, politics had largely kept harm reduction and syringe access services out of Charleston. The result was a monumental spike in new HIV cases, which jeopardized community health and tax-payer dollars.
Now, some officials are beginning to speak out in favor of the science behind those services.
“I see the need for harm reduction, certainly,” Hunt said. “The needle exchange needs to be a part of that, is my understanding, but I need to leave that to the medical experts.”
Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin did not make herself available for an interview for this story. She previously told Mountain State Spotlight she also supported medical professionals overseeing medical programs like needle exchanges, but stopped short of explicitly endorsing SOAR’s operations.
The syringe access program run by the nonprofit is the only needs-based program in Kanawha County and has been endorsed by medical professionals and experts both in-state and across the country. It follows the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s best-practices; the federal agency came out in unequivocal support of needs-based needle exchange services in late December.
Just last week, SOAR was denied certification and $150,000 in grant funding by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, largely on the grounds that it did not have community support. Now, SOAR has 30 days to appeal the denial.
The organization plans to continue its operations and has returned full services to the communities it serves.
“I’m disappointed and grateful at the same time,” said SOAR co-founder Sarah Stone. “I’m grateful that they found, as we expected them to, that we weren’t in violation of any laws. But I’m disappointed that they spent two months on an investigation that surrounded health care.”
Through bi-weekly street outreach, SOAR — founded in 2018 to help address the opioid epidemic — has distributed overdose reversal medications, food, first aid kits and provided linkage to medical and recovery services to people living with substance use disorders for the last two years.
But beginning in the spring , the group expanded its services to include a syringe access program, commonly known as a needle exchange. The move came in response to rising HIV and Hepatitis C infection rates linked to injection drug use and needle-sharing in Charleston following the elimination of a city-county needle exchange operated by the health department. They operated under the radar for months, but after a local TV segment questioned the legality of the distribution, Charleston Police opened an investigation into the exchange in October.
Despite maintaining that it had been operating legally, SOAR temporarily suspended its needle distribution services while the investigation was underway. More than two months later, the conclusion of the investigation confirms that SOAR’s interpretation of the law was right all along.
“It’s frustrating,” Stone said. “The city spent so much time looking into this when the real issues are that people are dying and people are spreading HIV and Hep C.”
Now, Stone said the group has a lot of work to do rebuilding trust with the people they serve. Before SOAR suspended its needle distribution, and became the subject of investigation, the group was serving around 200 people in one night of outreach. When needle exchange services were suspended and police began investigating, those numbers dropped by around 90%.
“People were scared,” Stone said.
Stone said she’s glad to hear that the mayor and police chief want to put medical decisions in the hands of medical professionals and says she looks forward to working with the city to continue to address the overdose epidemic. But she also hopes officials come out with stronger stances in support of SOAR’s syringe access and harm reduction services.
“If we’re going to change an ordinance, let’s make sure that we’re making it better for the whole community,” Stone said. “We need people to be brave enough to say, ‘this is the right thing to do.”