Bringing a substance abuse harm reduction program to the town of Rupert was hotly debated during Thursday evening’s council meeting, so much so that officials have decided to revisit the idea at their next meeting in February.
The proposal for the harm reduction program was first brought to the council during their December 2021 meeting by Rick Martin, Quick Response Team coordinator for Seneca Mental Health Services, and Melissa Manning, peer recovery support specialist at Seed Sower Inc. located in Dawson.
According to Martin, the program is designed to help those who are engaging in substance abuse by getting them in front of medical professionals with the Greenbrier County Health Department and West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine. Through this clinic, substance abusers would receive testing for HIV, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. They would also receive prescriptions for any abscesses caused by repeated syringe use and be provided with Narcan–a drug used to reverse the effects of an overdose–Fentanyl test strips and clean syringes.
Upon receiving medical care, peer recovery coaches would be able to meet with those in addiction and talk to them about getting clean, Martin explained. The clinic would be in town for four hours one day each month.
Due to the controversial nature of the harm reduction program, Rupert Mayor Steve Baldwin and council decided to get Rupert citizen input before signing off on allowing the program to enter the town. During the recent council meeting on Thursday, January 13, which lasted close to two hours, this first round of citizen input was gathered.
Those in favor of the harm reduction program spoke about how the program is the best way to reach out to people and get them into rehab. Most people in the town know someone who is either an active drug user, or they have lost a loved one to the drug epidemic. They want people to get help and feel that compassion is needed.
Those who spoke against the program felt like it wouldn’t be a good fit for the town. Concerns centered around the needle exchange component of the program, the idea that the program may bring additional substance abusers into the town, the idea that recovery doesn’t work and the failure of the program in the town of Rainelle. In addition to those present at the meeting, Baldwin stated that some residents who couldn’t be at the council meeting had spoken to him privately about their concerns. Those concerns included the idea that the program “enables” people to continue to use and that people only enter the program to get needles without actually wanting help.
“They come back regularly,” Martin said, addressing the concern that people only show up to get needles. He said that it is through those continued face-to-face meetings that he, and others, are able to build trust and finally start talking about recovery options.
“We make them accountable for those syringes,” Martin stated. That accountability is required by state law.
Manning added that “people who suffer from substance use disorder are going to use whether we supply them with clean needles or not. They will get needles and they will reuse needles. When they reuse needles, they are going to become septic.” Sepsis, caused by infection due to repeated syringe use, is often a cause of death for substance abusers.
“What we do is keep people alive until they are ready,” Manning continued. “We may see somebody twice and we may see somebody 22 times. But we continue to build relationships with these people until they are comfortable with us.” She said that even though the program itself might only be in town one day each month, peer recovery support specialists are able to stay in contact with users 24/7.
“We love these people until they are ready to love themselves,” she added. “This is more than just harm reduction. This is more than meeting them on the streets of the town. This is what we do. We love them until they love themselves and this is what puts them in recovery.”
She also noted that everyone who is against the program coming to town should take a look at the “bigger picture.” She said that many of those who engage in substance abuse often work minimum wage jobs, including as restaurant workers.
In some cases, those who share needles spread dangerous viruses which can lead to Hepatitis, a deadly liver inflammation. Should an infected user engage in unsanitary conditions while preparing food orders, a Hepatitis outbreak could occur throughout the community.
“It’s a lot bigger than the drug epidemic,” Manning said. “It’s a whole community and if you don’t want to open your eyes to a substance abuse disorder, you might want to open your eyes to community diseases. Because it’s bigger than substance abuse disorders.”
As for the failure of the program in Rainelle, Martin explained that the timing wasn’t right. But, now that the town has a new mayor and a police chief, the idea of revisiting the harm reduction program in that town is being considered.
“It’s a lot better now and we are working with them also,” Martin said. “There were some complaints in Rainelle about syringes being all over town.” But, during a syringe sweep following those complaints, only three syringes were found–one in a dumpster, he added.
In response to a citizen’s question about the rise in out-of-town substance abusers entering the town of Rainelle and squatting in vacant homes to attend the harm reduction program, Martin responded that just wasn’t the case.
“Us coming over there did not draw these people from wherever they were coming from to stay in these houses,” Martin said. “That wasn’t from harm reduction,” noting that they were only in the town one day each month.
“They were telling us that people were coming in and being dropped off in buses, is what they were saying. That was not for them to be dropped off for harm reduction, for that matter they could, you know, go anywhere. They could come to Fairlea and be dropped off, or what have you,” Martin stated. “I am sure that the number of homes after the flood, abandoned homes, was one reason. I am also sure that was because the police force was in disarray too. Rainelle was going through an awful problem.”
Baldwin added that the town of Rainelle had to create an ordinance that made it illegal to possess drug paraphernalia–including needles– within city limits. He said it was his understanding that the ordinance was created to stop the harm reduction program from being located there.
The Zero Drug Paraphernalia Ordinance was passed by Rainelle Town Council on Monday, June 14, 2021.
Although Martin said he couldn’t comment on that particular ordinance, he said that he hopes that through continued discussions, the town’s officials will change their mind on harm reduction.
“Their issue right now is trying to actually, I believe, arrest their way out of it,” Martin responded. “It ain’t gonna happen,” adding that the war on drugs isn’t working and it is time to find a better way to address the situation.
He said that one goal of those with harm reduction is to establish the program in the west-end of the county because the program is already available to those on the east-end at the Greenbrier County Health Department, located in Fairlea. Establishing the program on the west-end would give those who aren’t able to make the drive to Fairlea the chance to get treatment. He said that even though the program will only be in town once a month, it is still beneficial. If the program proves to be successful, they would like to come to town twice a month.
“There are a lot of facets to solving this problem,” added Manning. “I am here. I will help. It’s gonna take more than just harm reduction. It’s gonna take more than just AA and NA meetings. It’s gonna take a whole lot of things to fix the problem.”
The Rupert Town Council will once again take up the matter at the next meeting on Thursday, February 10. The meetings begin at 6 pm at town hall. Everyone is encouraged to provide their input and ask important questions.