Talks on opening a needle exchange in Roanoke took two steps back and one sidestep on Monday after the city’s police chief stood resistant, council members parsed his reasoning and the city manager implored the discussion move elsewhere.
City Manager Bob Cowell told the council he was “highly confident” a syringe exchange would eventually be part of the region’s comprehensive approach to treating drug addiction.
He urged members to let the Collective Response — a newly formed group of community leaders — work out details to overcome law enforcement objections.
“I cannot sign something that asks me to condone felony behavior,” Chief Tim Jones told the council after Councilman John Garland asked him to address his concerns. “And that’s the hiccup here. And I’ve got no guidance from Richmond, I’ve received no guidance from anywhere else.”
A 2017 state law requires law enforcement support in order to have a needle exchange, in which people addicted to drugs can exchange dirty needles for clean ones. As part of broader services, such a program is aimed at reducing infectious disease rates and ushering people into addiction treatment.
Garland asked Jones if he had talked with his counterpart in Richmond, which has opened an exchange. Wise County opened the first exchange in the state, and Smyth County has been approved to do the same.
“Everyone looks at it differently,” Jones said. “You’ve got two sheriffs in the western part of the state who are apparently OK with turning their heads to potentially felony conduct. I am not.”
Councilwoman Michelle Davis zeroed in on a letter Jones was given 18 months ago by the Roanoke nonprofit Drop-In Center, which initially proposed an exchange. It asked the chief to work with partners to develop “reasonable immunities to existing paraphernalia laws” as part of the exchange — a notion the law doesn’t specify.
“I think that the conversation needs to start from scratch,” said Davis (formerly Dykstra). “It sounds as if the letter that’s in your hands is the real stopping point.”
Councilman Bill Bestpitch asked Jones how an exchange of needles would be different in principle from the department-supported Hope Initiative, which in part lets people turn in drug paraphernalia without consequence.
Jones said participants in an exchange, in active addiction, would possess illegal drugs.
“How do I look past that?” Jones asked.
“So you’re saying nobody who comes into the Hope Initiative is committing felonies?” Bestpitch said.
“They probably are until they come into the door, ” Jones said.
“Right, they probably are,” Bestpitch said. “We’re just saying rather than arrest them and lock them up, which isn’t going to help anybody, we’re going to do something that’s going to be beneficial even though we know that at least some of them, probably many of them, most of them, have committed some kind of felony somewhere along the line.”
“But not in my presence,” Jones said. “In the presence of my officers.”
After Jones had left, Garland told Cowell he had a “big job ahead of you” convincing Jones.
Cowell said future talks would come through the Collective Response.
“We’re dealing with a crisis,” he said. “So this is not something that can take forever to arrive at a resolution.”