A syringe exchange in Roanoke has taken another step toward reality.

The Roanoke City Council gave its official and unanimous approval Monday for a nonprofit to operate a program aimed at reducing infectious diseases and increasing access to drug treatment.

If approved by the Virginia Department of Health, Roanoke will be the fourth locality in the state to provide such services. So-called needle exchanges, where used hypodermic syringes can be swapped for sterile ones, have been established in Richmond, Wise County and Smyth County.

The General Assembly in 2017 allowed certain cities and counties with high HIV and hepatitis C rates to set up comprehensive harm reduction programs. Those services typically entail disease testing, overdose training, education about treatment and sterile syringes.

Such syringe exchange programs have grown in popularity in more rural areas in the wake of the opioid epidemic and increase in intravenous drug use. Besides reducing infectious disease rates, which can be spread through unsanitary needles, research shows such programs can be effective in connecting people with drug treatment services and decreasing the number of publicly discarded needles.

The Drop-In Center, an arm of the Council of Community Services, will run a mobile unit twice per week at various sites across the city, according to a copy of the nonprofit’s proposal submitted to the city.

Before receiving syringes, participants are required to undergo an intake screening at a fixed location. The nonprofit is still working to determine that facility, but it won’t be at the Drop-In Center, said Colin Dwyer, program coordinator for the Drop-In Center.

People will also receive a card that identifies them as a participant in the program.

“The bottom of the card will include a disclaimer reminding participants that they are still subject to criminal prosecution if caught with paraphernalia or substances,” the proposal says.

A perception that the program would give participants immunity to drug or paraphernalia laws was a major hangup in setting up an exchange in Roanoke, an idea first proposed in 2017.

The state law requires law enforcement approve the program, and Chief Tim Jones had resisted the plan until approving a new proposal worked out through the Roanoke Valley Collective Response, a group of nearly 200 people formed last year to address the opioid and addiction crisis.

“The Roanoke Police Department has worked in concert with coalition partners to outline specific roles and responsibilities toward fulfilling the mission of comprehensive harm reduction,” Jones wrote in a March 23 letter supporting the program addressed to the state health commissioner.

In a flowchart of how the program will operate, the Drop-In Center includes a bullet point titled “Public Safety Concerns Addressed.” The chart explains the mobile unit’s service schedule will be shared with the police department.

Dwyer said the nonprofit and police department worked on a compromise so law enforcement wouldn’t have to turn a blind eye to the syringe distribution aspect of the program.

The proposal says the syringe exchange will be one-to-one, except if participants don’t have any syringes to turn in.

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