Roanoke city leaders remain at odds over possible needle exchange program (and why we’re still hopeful)

On Monday members of the collective response team presented to City Council on comprehensive harm reduction services. The presentation included many subject matter experts including Dr. Stephanie Harper, Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts; Pam Meador, Council of Community Services’ Drop-In Center; Dr. Cheri Hartman, Carilion Clinic and Roanoke Valley Hope Initiative, Janie Underwood, Bradley Free Clinic and Roanoke Valley Hope Initiative; and Dr. Kim Horn, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. Each presented on their respective contributions to the collective response to combat opioid and addiction. The focus was on comprehensive harm reduction services – what is already being done to address the crisis and what isn’t.

The Drop-In Center was awarded in 2014 to provide a pilot program for Comprehensive Harm Reduction (CHR) services in the Roanoke Valley. Two years prior to the declaration of a public health emergency. The Center’s CHR services include HIV and Hepatitis C (HCV) testing, linkage to care for positives, outreach, REVIVE naloxone training, distribution of wound care kits, and skills building through CLEAR (Choose Life! Empowerment, Action, Results!), a one-on-one, five session program with specific set goals, including developing daily routines that will optimize physical and mental health, address substance abuse and develop consistent ways to practice safe sex. The final component? A needle exchange program.

This is where it gets tough. As you’ve probably read over and over again in the media – we’re at a standstill as Roanoke city leaders remain at odds, specifically law enforcement. After the collective response team presented yesterday, our Police Chief Tim Jones was invited to speak and reiterated his opposition to the program.

While we remain at odds, Virginia remains steadily above the national average in opioid abuse and Hepatitis C continues to be on the rise. According to the Council of Community Services 2017-2018 annual report, we tested 610 individuals for Hepatitis C and of those tested, 112 new cases were found.

Between the Council of Community Services, Virginia Department of Health, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, and other partners like RAYSAC, we are rich in data. The statistics were flying at yesterday’s meeting. In fact, participants in a needle exchange program are five times more likely to enter treatment for substance use disorder and more likely to reduce or stop injecting when they use a syringe services program.

A Washington Post article states:

“When people feel valued rather than judged, regardless of whether they continue to take drugs, they begin to value themselves more. Once people feel safe and cared for, it’s much easier to make changes that otherwise frighten them….users are more likely to seek further help, not less.”

The time to act is now. Not only because there’s lives at risk but because of funding deadlines. We have until 2020 to gain approval at the local and state level. If approved, we have a really good chance at a renewal to fund the full CHR program. We’re currently closing in on the five year pilot program.

We remain hopeful that we will be able to gain consensus to move forward.

“We’re going to come out of it I’m confident, I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but we’re going to come out of it on the other side with something everyone feels confident with including the police chief and city council,” – Roanoke City Manager, Bob Cowell.

We are grateful for Mr. Cowell for the opportunity to present once again to the City Council and we look forward to the discussions ahead.

Watch the live feed of the 2:00 PM November 19th City Council Meeting here.


Why it’s not ‘enabling’ to make drug use safer, Washington Post, March 13, 2018

Reducing Harms from Injection Drug Use & Opioid Use Disorder with Syringe Services Programs ,CDC, August 2017

Declaration of Public Health Emergency, Virginia Department of Health, November 21, 2016

Roanoke city leaders remain at odds over possible needle exchange program

Program requires police chief and council’s approval, among others

By Shayne Dwyer – Report, WSLS 10

ROANOKE, Va. – Roanoke city leaders are at odds on how to help solve the opioid crisis.

On Monday the collective response team, made up of dozens of people who all play some part in the drug recovery process from healthcare to first responders, presented for the second time to city council. Many members of the program want to establish harm reduction methods, one of which being a needle exchange program.

Syringe exchange programs are allowed by Virginia law, but require the approval of the local governing body, local health officials, and the localities top law enforcement official. In Roanoke, that’s Roanoke Police Chief Tim Jones. After being invited to speak before council Monday, Jones again stated his opposition to the program. His primary reservations are over the program’s immunity clause, which would ask officers not to arrest program participants for their drug use.

“I take the same oath to obey the law as you folks do, I can not sign something that asks me to condone felony behavior and that’s the hiccup here,” Jones said.

Roanoke City Manager Bob Cowell is tasked with bringing all sides to an agreement.

“We’re going to come out of it I’m confident, I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but we’re going to come out of it on the other side with something everyone feels confident with including the police chief and city council,” Cowell said.

City leaders have a 2020 deadline to figure out what they’re going to do. There are three other syringe exchange programs in Virginia, including one in Richmond. The Virginia General Assembly would be required to approve any programs after they are approved at the local level as well.