Cabell County commissioners OK a review of needle exchange program

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Cabell County commissioners want to make sure a syringe exchange program for drug users is fully in line with recent stricter West Virginia laws, and voted to approve an audit of the program.

Like many such programs worldwide, the needle exchange allows intravenous drug users to get sterile syringes for free. The aim is to prevent the transmission of HIV and other diseases in the West Virginia county where more people have died of opioid overdoses than any other.

The Cabell County Commission approved a resolution Thursday seeking an evaluation and audit of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department’s syringe exchange, The Herald-Dispatch reported. That comes a year and a half after a new state law went into effect placing more stringent requirements on the programs. Needle exchanges and other harm-reduction activities are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and use scientifically proven methods.

Commissioner Jim Morgan said there’s no indication the health department program is working outside the scope of the law, The Herald-Dispatch reported.

Commissioner Kelli Sobonya said the request for an audit was to ensure the program is following the new requirements passed by the state Legislature, the newspaper reported.

“Information is power,” she said. “This just evaluates to make sure we’re following the law and the rule.”

The new law, signed by Republican Gov. Jim Justice last year, requires licenses for syringe collection and distribution programs. Operators have to offer an array of health outreach services, including overdose prevention education and substance abuse treatment program referrals. Participants also must show an identification card to get a syringe.

One provision requires syringes to be marked with the program passing them out. Another provision gives local governments the authority to bar certain groups or providers from setting up a syringe exchange program.

It took effect amid one of the nation’s highest spikes in HIV cases related to intravenous drug use. The surge was clustered mainly around the capital of Charleston and the city of Huntington in Cabell County. Opponents of the law said it would lead to the closure of syringe access programs and the continued spread of HIV.

Since the law’s implementation, several local health departments and other providers have shut down their syringe exchange programs, saying the new regulations are so strict that compliance is not possible.