Sen. Eric Tarr told his Senate colleagues on Tuesday about needle exchanges, noting, “I’m probably going to be talking about every day about this issue, and if DHHR doesn’t do it, I’ll be running a bill every freaking session and talking about it until this legislature takes responsibility for what we know by what DHHR reports. It can be done right. It’s not happening. There’s half a million needles out there just in this past year…”
Tarr spoke on Wednesday about the exchanges, and continued his comments on Thursday, telling senators individuals from 32 states “were getting off buses in Charleston to access that needle exchange, [which has since closed], and the vagrancy went up. The crime went up. The drug trade went up.”
He referred to the phenomenon as “drug tourism” and says those individuals are still in West Virginia. He reenforced his argument, reading from a redacted email from a Huntington police officer who wrote him, “As a result [of the needle exchange], Huntington now has a large transient population that places a burden upon law enforcement, social services, the courts and the medical community as a whole… This is not sustainable for Huntington or West Virginia as a whole and can only lead to worse and worse problems for our state and depletion of our limited resources financially, and most importantly, our quality of life for our people. “
Tarr has criticized the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources and the Bureau for Public Health for not addressing the needle problem, noting in his Feb. 18 comments, “So I’m going to tell you some numbers that come from DHHR by their own self-reporting, in … 2019, they report dispensing about 1,440,000 needles in West Virginia. They have no idea what happened to nearly half a million of those needles—around 460,000…”
Speaking Thursday to the Senate Committee on Health and Human Resources, DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch stressed all the syringe exchange decisions are local. “The first issue to us is make sure these are local decisions,” Crouch said. “DHHR does not make these decisions for communities whether to have a needle exchange program. That’s been true everywhere they’ve been developed, and everywhere they’ve been discontinued. We will provide technical assistance. We will provide factual information. These are programs that are beneficial to fighting the drug epidemic. We clearly see benefits from these. We’ve had over 1,600 people referred to treatment just through harm reduction programs.”
Crouch admitted his conversations with senators made him more aware of what he referred to as “needle litter.” Crouch said DHHR is developing guidelines, that he said will be implemented fairly soon, that will be required of all local entities receiving syringe exchange grants from DHHR.
These include requiring syringe clean-up and disposal programs and working with business and private entities on reducing the needle litter program.