Roanoke seeks to be the fourth locality in Virginia to set up a needle exchange to help treat addiction, a program that could be in place as early as this summer.
On Monday, the Roanoke City Council heard an update from the Roanoke Valley Collective Response, a group of 180 people representing 102 organizations that formed in September to identify where the region is falling short in drug prevention and treatment services.
The Collective Response announced that through its working group, the nonprofit Council of Community Service’s Drop-In Center and Police Chief Tim Jones had settled on a plan.
The state Health Department program allows localities with high rates of HIV and hepatitis C to hand out new syringes, take used ones, and connect people with counseling, health care and other treatment.
A 2017 state law requires that such programs — called comprehensive harm reduction — gain approval from the locality’s government, law enforcement and health department leaders.
Syringe exchanges are operating in Richmond, and through the Wise County and Smyth County health departments.
Such public health programs operate across the country to connect people to treatment, with research showing that they don’t increase drug use and can reduce the number of discarded syringes.
The nonprofit will submit its application to the Virginia Department of Health by April 30, Dr. Cheri Hartman, one of the leaders of the Collective Response, told the council.
Access to peer recovery specialists, counselors and other care are central to the program.
“Our model focuses on comprehensive care and doesn’t just limit itself to a very narrow perspective with regard to syringe services,” Hartman said. “The idea of this is truly a sustainable approach to harm reduction that leads people into getting the help that they need for their disease of addiction.”
Council members praised the group for being the only such community coalition in the state, and for helping devise a harm-reduction program that will work for Roanoke. The council is expected to adopt a resolution approving the plan in May, although the nonprofit plans to submit its application before then.
“The easiest thing in the world is just to jump on that bandwagon and say, ‘Oh, they’re doing. Let’s do it,’” Councilman Bill Bestpitch said. It’s much harder, he said, to bring together all the parties involved in the Collective Response to develop a comprehensive plan to address the addiction crisis.
An earlier plan to provide syringe services stalled in July 2017 after Jones withheld his support, saying needle-exchange programs would force officers to ignore drug and paraphernalia laws.
“So, would I have loved to have seen all of this in place a year ago? Of course,” Bestpitch said. “But one of the things that I have learned in my time of public service is that it’s much more important to do something this significant, to be done right, than to get it done quickly.”
Pam Meador, director of the Drop-In Center, credited the Collective Response with helping bring the nonprofit and law enforcement together to hammer out a resolution and end what Meador called 18 months of misconceptions.
The nonprofit first sent Jones a template support letter that indicated the police department might provide workarounds to drug and paraphernalia laws to people in the program. Through the Collective Response, they were able to communicate to Jones that a change in enforcing such drug laws was never the intention.
“In regards to this comprehensive harm reduction program, Chief Jones is a hero,” Meador said after the meeting.
At Monday’s council meeting, Jones stood smiling alongside other members of the Collective Response. He left after the briefing and didn’t respond to reporters.
Details about the program’s location and a possible mobile unit are expected to be finalized by June. In an interview, Meador said an ambitious timetable would have the services ready in July at the earliest.
Dr. Kimberly Horn, a leader of the Collective Response, told the council that the group plans to have a draft of a broader blueprint on addressing the opioid epidemic by the spring and a more final plan by the summer.
City Manager Bob Cowell cast the news of a comprehensive harm-reduction program as only the first victory in what will be a series of initiatives from the Collective Response.
“To focus on the needle exchange effort really does this a disservice,” Cowell told the council. “This is a much larger undertaking by a very large group of very dedicated people.”
To make headway on meeting the opioid crisis, Cowell said, “nothing short of a comprehensive and collective response stands any chance of success.”