After more than a year of resistance, Roanoke Police Chief Tim Jones has signed a letter of support for a nonprofit to operate a needle exchange program, officials said last week.
“The chief has already done his part in helping craft that program,” City Manager Bob Cowell said Friday. “They’ve arrived at something everyone’s in support of.”
A plan to stem opioid addiction, including the proposed establishment of a syringe exchange program, will be unveiled Monday at the Roanoke City Council meeting.
Council members will be briefed by the Roanoke Valley Collective Response, a group representing 80-plus organizations that came together last year to address the crisis.
One recommendation includes a program for comprehensive harm reduction, a term encompassing services that include access to treatment, therapy and sanitary needles to those with addiction.
A 2017 state law allowed certain localities to set up the programs in order to reduce the rates of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C, which can spread through shared needles. The law requires support from the local health department, government and law enforcement. If approved, Roanoke’s program would be the fourth in Virginia, after exchanges in Richmond, Smyth County and Wise County.
Syringe exchanges have been in operation in U.S. cities for decades, and have in recent years proved popular in more rural areas where opioid abuse, and concomitant infectious diseases, have taken root. Research has consistently shown that such programs connect people with treatment, reduce the numbers of publicly discarded needles and do not increase rates of drug use.
Since July 2017, Jones has publicly withheld his approval, saying that to support the plan would be to endorse illegal behavior. At one point, he likened the program to handing out marijuana to school children.
On Thursday, Jones declined an interview, saying in an email he wasn’t “in a position to discuss the collective work at this time.”
When the Collective Response began in September, it gathered more than 125 people from disparate fields — law enforcement, business, health care and government, among others — to come up with a blueprint to prevent and treat addiction to drugs, particularly opioids.
They identified the community’s range of gaps in services, from the initial prevention of drug use to drug treatment and recovery. The coalition met monthly and broke out in smaller groups to address certain aspects of the overall plan.
Dr. Kimberly Horn, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and a spokeswoman for the Collective Response, didn’t respond to messages this week. In late March, Horn said, “Our working group is making excellent progress on a potential harm reduction model for Roanoke. It is a highly collaborative effort.”
Colin Dwyer, program coordinator for the Drop-In Center, which first proposed setting up a syringe exchange, said Friday that the nonprofit and Jones were able to settle on a plan through the Collective Response meetings.
“He seemed comfortable with what he was agreeing to,” Dwyer said. “I feel pretty good about it.”
Dwyer and Cowell stressed that details for the plan are still being finalized before the nonprofit plans to submit its application to the state. The city council will also have to sign on to the group’s plan. Cowell said he wouldn’t speculate whether the council would give the green light. But Mayor Sherman Lea has signed a letter of support, and in recent meetings no council members have said publicly that they oppose the idea of such a program.
Councilman Bill Bestpitch praised Jones during a February council meeting when the chief first indicated that headway was being made on a plan. Bestpitch compared the program to the Hope Initiative, which connects people with drug treatment and allows them to turn in paraphernalia without legal repercussions. In November, councilwoman Michelle Davis and then-councilman John Garland indicated a desire to see progress made on a plan.
Cowell said the draft model for the harm reduction program includes a combination of a fixed location and a mobile unit offering syringes and access to counseling and treatment.
It was important for Jones, Cowell said, that the program is conceived as “a temporary state” for those using drugs, a social service “right in the middle of prevention and treatment.”
When Dwyer contacted Jones in July 2017, he included a draft letter of support that mentioned the chief could help develop “reasonable immunities to existing paraphernalia laws” for participants in the program. That proved a hang-up, Dwyer said, because it was asking police to ignore those laws. The original plan also proposed hosting the needle exchange at the Drop-In Center, which neighbors the police department.
In his professional capacity, the chief has “helped craft what meets those objections,” Cowell said. “I don’t know that anything has probably changed in the chief’s personal opinion in what this may involve.”
On Monday, the Collective Response will present a range of recommendations on how to prevent and treat addiction. The council won’t act on many of those, Cowell said, because they will likely target other agencies and require state funding.
“I think it would be a disservice to the community if the only thing that’s talked about is the needle exchange,” Cowell said. He plans to stress to the council that the blueprint from the Collective Response is a holistic way to confront the crisis.
“You can have needle exchanges all day long and really not accomplish a significant amount of movement on the opioid issue,” he said.