It’s official: Roanoke is the fourth locality in the state to win approval for a syringe exchange.

The Virginia Health Department has endorsed a local nonprofit’s plan for a program aimed at reducing infectious disease rates by allowing people who use drugs to turn in used needles for sanitary ones. As the opioid crisis rages, public health advocates say such comprehensive harm-reduction programs prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, connect people with drug treatment and reduce overdose rates.

“I think it shows we’ve done our due diligence, and the state agrees we are a good organization to do this,” said Colin Dwyer, program coordinator for the nonprofit Drop-In Center, which received the state’s authorization letter Monday. “We’ve been in the prevention game long enough, and harm reduction without the syringe component.”

State approval caps a yearslong quest by the Drop-In Center, an arm of the Council of Community Services, to bring a program to Roanoke. The plan hit a roadblock in 2017 after resistance from Roanoke’s police chief.

Dwyer hopes the exchange will be up and running sometime this fall.

Syringes will be available only to registered participants at a mobile unit, which will rotate through three locations: the parking lots of the Bradley Free Clinic, Goodwill Industries of the Valleys on Melrose Avenue, and the Fralin Free Clinic at the Rescue Mission of Roanoke, according to a copy of the nonprofit’s application.

Program leaders still need to find a fixed site for intake, hire two peer recovery specialists and finalize the program’s funding, which will come mostly through state grants, Dwyer said. The application lists close to $200,000 in staff and program costs and another $56,000 for a vehicle and related expenses.

“There’s still a lot to do, so I’m glad that at least the bureaucratic hurdles are out of the way,” Dwyer said. “I feel like the community is in a better spot than it was a year or so ago.”

State lawmakers in 2017 allowed localities with high infectious disease rates to set up harm-reduction programs, with support from local law enforcement agencies, governments and health departments. So far, exchanges operate in Richmond and in and around Wise and Smyth counties.

Police Chief Tim Jones submitted a letter supporting the program in March, after mediation between him and the nonprofit by the Roanoke Valley Collective Response, a coalition aimed at stemming the opioid crisis. Jones had previously expressed concerns that the program would force law enforcement to turn a blind eye to potential criminal activity.

Peer specialists will tell participants they’re still subject to drug paraphernalia laws, Dwyer said.

Police didn’t answer questions Tuesday about the department’s protocol when officers encounter people in the program carrying drugs or syringes.

“As we have not been advised on the program’s status, it would be improper to speak on what will change or will not change at this time,” a police spokeswoman said in an email.

Harm-reduction programs have operated in cities for decades. In recent years, they’ve sprouted in rural areas affected by the opioid crisis, and the spread of diseases associated with intravenous drug use.

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Henri Gendreau covers crime in Roanoke and the surrounding area.

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