Needle exchange law in West Virginia halted amid lawsuit

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A judge in West Virginia has granted a group’s request to stop a law tightening requirements on needle exchange programs from being implemented next month.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s West Virginia chapter filed a federal lawsuit last week. A judge issued a temporary restraining order Monday and scheduled a July 8 hearing on the issue. The law was set to take effect July 9.

“We’re encouraged by this decision from the court,” chapter legal director Loree Stark said. “This harmful, constitutionally flawed bill should never be allowed to take effect. Harm reduction saves lives.”

Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed the bill in April over the objections of critics who said it will restrict access to clean needles amid a spike in HIV cases.

The governor’s office did not return an email seeking comment Monday.

The bill would requires licenses for syringe collection and distribution programs. Operators would 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 obtain a syringe. Advocates view the regulations as onerous.

Supporters said the legislation would help those addicted to opioids get connected to health care services fighting substance abuse. Some Republicans lawmakers had said the changes were necessary because some needle exchange programs were “operating so irresponsibly” that they were causing syringe litter.

The ACLU chapter called it “one of the most restrictive state laws governing syringe exchange services in the nation.” The group said it would likely lead to more HIV cases and the spread of other bloodborne illnesses.

The law, if implemented, would take effect amid one of the nation’s highest spikes in HIV cases related to intravenous drug use. The surge, clustered mainly around the capital of Charleston and the city of Huntington, was attributed at least in part to the cancellation in 2018 of Charleston’s needle exchange program.

It has led to an investigation by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that last week found emergency departments and inpatient medical personnel rarely conducted HIV testing on intravenous drug users in Kanawha County.

Previously, city leaders and first responders complained that the program in Kanawha County led to an increase in needles being left in public places and abandoned buildings, and it was shut down.

The CDC describes syringe programs as “safe, effective, and cost-saving.”

On Saturday, dozens of volunteers formed the letters “HIV SOS” at a health event as activists seek a public health emergency declaration in Charleston for the HIV crisis as well as overdoses from prescription pain pills.

Associated Press writer Cuneyt Dil contributed to this report.