After months of questions around a new West Virginia law on harm reduction, and a legal challenge to its constitutionality, a federal judge has ruled that the measure is enforceable.
Passed in April by the Legislature, Senate Bill 334 requires programs offering syringe exchanges to host a number of other harm reduction services, force them to deny clean needles to those who don’t return with their used needles and require them to only serve clients with state IDs in order to operate.
Syringe exchanges are widely seen by public health experts as a key measure in preventing the spread of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C among people who inject drugs.
On June 25, the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia filed a lawsuit challenging the enforceability of the law. Attorneys for the ACLU-WV argued the language in the bill was vague and made it impossible for program administrators to have a clear understanding of what would be required to comply with requirements and avoid fines.
“A lawyer can’t look at this law and tell you what conduct would and wouldn’t violate it,” said ACLU-WV Legal Director Loree Stark of the law earlier this month. “That’s a problem. Especially when those deemed to be in violation could face a $10,000 fine.”
Shortly after the suit was filed, U.S. District Court Judge Robert C. Chambers issued a temporary restraining order that would prevent the law from going into effect until Chambers had time to hear arguments for and against the law. That order lasted through July 8, when attorneys for the plaintiffs — a collection of harm reduction operators in the state — and the state Department of Health and Human Resources met in court. After that hearing, Chambers extended the restraining order.
On Thursday, the judge dissolved the restraining order and denied the plaintiff’s requests for a preliminary injunction, noting that the court “agrees that [a section of the law] reflects poor draftsmanship,” but “cannot conclude that these inconsistencies render the language so vague as to violate Plaintiffs’ due process rights.”
“We respect the Court’s decision, although we are of course disappointed with the results of the ruling. We are considering our available options for moving forward,” Stark said in a written statement following the decision.
Representatives from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, which was listed as a defendant in the case, did not return a request for comment.
Before and following its passage, Senate Bill 334 was widely opposed by local health department administrators across the state who have expressed concerns that its stringent requirements conflicted with best practices. The harsh rules, they said, would jeopardize the health of their communities by contributing to the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C, and would force some programs to close down because they could not risk being deemed out of compliance and the hefty fines associated.
Marion County’s health department has already closed its syringe program in response to the law. Others — like those in Cabell, Kanawha and Monongalia counties — are working to try to comply.
The law was signed by Gov. Jim Justice in the midst of an HIV outbreak linked to injection drug use in West Virginia’s capital city. That outbreak has since required federal response from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; without the ability to get people who inject drugs access to clean needles, officials have said the outbreak will likely get worse.
This story includes reporting by Emily Allen.