Discussion needed on needle exchange

Two weeks ago, following articles published in local newspapers referencing the implementation of a “needle exchange” program here in Buckhannon, I, like many others, became highly concerned. I remember thinking to myself: “How could the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department implement such a program here without holding a single public hearing, without appearing before this council, nor before the county commission, and without considering the negative affects this very program has had on other communities?”

Okay. Let’s start with the basics…

How do you make a decision? What are the components? Most of us consider all options at hand. We weigh the pros/cons. We conduct research. We poll our friends, family members, colleagues, and constituents for their opinions. We determine the weight of emotion on the situation. Finally, we process all the information in order to choose our calculated direction.

Makes sense, right?

Unfortunately, the decision to create a needle exchange program in this community did not follow the above-mentioned outline. Please understand, this letter is not an attack. I am not at all suggesting the members of the Health Department board acted upon ill-will toward our community, nor do I believe any of them woke up one morning and, on a whim, decided to bring this initiative here. We know from the article they have been looking into this program for quite some time. They were advised by Mylan Puskar’s staff from Morgantown, as well as officials with health departments in other West Virginia cities where needle exchange programs exist.

But were ALL sides consulted?

I am simply advocating for our local health department to open the lines of communication with our community; to city and county elected officials responsible for making community-wide decisions, to our medical providers, first responders, board of education, and to businesses and citizens in communities like Charleston and Huntington, places where this program has had significant negative impact.

Did anyone solicit the concerns from those opposing this program? Do we really know what this program will cost our community? The answer to all is no. We have entirely too many people left in the dark regarding this issue.

I took the liberty to conduct some research – from Charleston, a place I spend a lot of time, and a place I have many personal and professional relationships. Just for your information, the needle exchange program there takes place at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, located Downtown on Lee Street, adjacent to the Town Center Mall. Charleston’s needle exchange program began in 2015. In the last three years, the crime rate at the Town Center Mall has increased 200 percent. In 2015, the number of 911 calls to the mall was approximately 200 for the year. In 2017, nearly 500 calls. Through the first quarter of this year, 168 calls. At this same rate, there could potentially be near 700 calls to the mall this year. The subjects of the calls range from assaults, to robberies, to suspicious activity, to stabbings and even a shooting in the Lee Street parking garage.

Just for comparison sake, our Buckhannon Fire Department averages just under 700 calls to its entire service area, including locations both in and out of city limits, in a year. Those calls include, but are not limited to: structure fires, vehicle fires, accidents, medical emergencies, and weather-related issues. In Charleston, emergency personnel are responding to approximately the same number of calls to one city block because of an adjacent needle exchange program.

After speaking with our local first responders, I can tell you that we do not currently have the man-power, nor do we have the resources needed to adequately respond to a drastic increase in 911 call volume.

In the past year alone, 28 empty store fronts have popped up at the mall. In exit surveys with mall management, the #1 reason stores are leaving is due to safety issues and drug abuse inside, and immediately surrounding the structure. The mall is even up for sale right now. Its largest anchor store, Macy’s, does not plan to renew its lease, which expires in early 2019. This is a crisis for our Capital City. If you can believe it, Huntington is even worse with highest drug overdose numbers in the entire nation. Ask our fire department. We have a young man on our staff who worked as a career firefighter for the City of Huntington. He says it was not uncommon for his station alone to respond to 10-12 overdoses per day.

However, perhaps some good news is instore for Charleston. In recent weeks, City Council voted to indefinitely suspend the needle exchange program at the Health Department. Mayor Danny Jones says the mall, and the entire city, desperately needed for this to happen to improve the livable, workable, walkable atmosphere in the city.

In the interest of considering both sides of the story, I searched for factual information illustrating that a needle exchange program can prove successful in reducing illegal drug use/overdose rates. The information I found available leaves room for a lot of subjectivity, thus no one really knows if the program has any true success stories. The words in the local newspaper article, however, work to assure us that the needle exchange program will not be an enabler and that its goal is to reduce Hepatitis B&C, HIV and other blood borne diseases through safe, responsible use/disposal of needles.

Recently, a needle exchange took place within 20 miles of Buckhannon. Our emergency personnel here in town noticed an immediate uptick in drug overdoses following the exchange. We even have a city police officer recovering from being “stuck” by a needle while responding to an overdose in the restroom of a local restaurant that occurred in the same time frame as the exchange.

So I ask the members of our board of health, our citizens, fellow elected leaders, medical providers, first responders, educators, etc.; is this something we want here?

Please note, that by signing up for this program, we are not eliminating the abuse of drugs in our community. Instead, we’re seemingly creating an environment where the “drug buying and selling industry” could top the profits of our strongest, most prominent businesses. If we are going to solve the drug epidemic at hand, we need to formulate a wholistic approach, not simply slap a band-aid on the problem without medication and hope the wounds will heal.

I am asking the Heath Department to hold public hearings, meet with the groups I’ve listed above, and consider the negative affects this program has had on other cities. Additionally, I am calling upon this community to attend the hearings, when posted, prepared to voice your concerns. After speaking with so many of you over the past 2 weeks, it’s clear to me you want your voices to be heard, but for that to happen, we must show strength in numbers. This is important. The overall safety and future vitality of this community rides on this decision.

No pressure.

I’ll leave you with this: In all that we do, we must be mindful that with every decision, what is best for our entire community should always be at the forefront.

Thank you,

Robbie Skinner,

Buckhannon City