Needle exchange ordinance goes back to the drawing board

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The needle exchange at Green Street Church has drawn opposition from some West Salem residents, but others support it. (photo by Justin Cook)

A proposal to regulate the location of needle-exchange programs in Winston-Salem goes back to the drawing board.

Councilman John Larson announced his support for a proposal to regulate needle exchanges from the outset of Monday’s meeting of the public safety committee of Winston-Salem City Council. No big surprise there: The only needle exchange in existence is located in the West Salem neighborhood of the South Ward, which Larson represents.

“This is a brand-new provision that was enabled in state legislation, and really is unproven ground on so many levels,” Larson said. “The licensing, the permitting, the reporting requirements are clearly defined by the state. However, what’s not defined is where these units can be placed and how they fit within the appropriate uses that neighborhood, business area zonings have established.

“And so what we have today is basically a definition of how to incorporate this activity or this function into the landscape of zoning within the city,” he continued. “It’s an important function. It needs to be accessible, it needs to be visible, it needs to be ongoing and sustained in locations that have become recognized over a long period of time.”

The state legislation referenced by Larson became law in July 2016 and allows organizations that register with the state Department of Health and Human Services and provide annual security plans to local law enforcement to distribute clean hypodermic syringes for the purpose of reducing the spread of HIV, AIDS, viral hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases. The programs also provide free Naloxone kits to reverse heroin and opioid overdoses.

The proposal under consideration would have added “needle and hypodermic syringe exchange program” as a use in the city’s zoning ordinance, and then restricted that use to areas zoned for four non-residential classifications, including general business, highway business, campus and general office. Green Street United Methodist Church, the progressive church in West Salem where the Twin City Harm Reduction Collective operates the city’s only needle exchange, is zoned residential, automatically making the operation “nonconforming.” The proposal would require any such “nonconforming” uses to discontinue by June 1, 2019.

Colin Miller, cofounder of the Twin City Harm Reduction Collective and a former addict himself, challenged the sentiment expressed by council members that needle exchanges place a burden on their host neighborhoods.

“A lot of the discussion is premised on the notion that a syringe exchange is going to be a bad element in a community, and there is decades of data on syringe exchanges in Northern cities, where they have been for 10 years, 20 years,” he said at the meeting. “There is years and years of data that has shown that needle exchanges have low to no [negative] impact, and often positive impact on the communities that they are involved with, and that they work within, because it’s a way for people who are drug users, especially in the immediate vicinity to get into treatment, to get into methadone programs, Suboxone programs.”

Miller told Councilman Jeff MacIntosh that being forced to move from a church in a residential neighborhood to an office park or shopping center would throw up a significant barrier for an outfit that’s sustained by donations and volunteer labor.

“There’s no pubic funding for programs like this; it’s all volunteer run,” Miller said. “There’s 22 active syringe exchanges in North Carolina right now since the law went through…. None of these exchanges are located in commercial areas; they’re all in residential areas. None of us have the money to get a commercial spot. This would add an extra barrier… and these are services that are needed immediately. Lives are being lost everyday. We’re in a crisis here. We need to get services to people as quickly and as efficiently as possible.”

Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke expressed concern about social services becoming concentrated in certain neighborhoods, citing as an example the intersection of Patterson Avenue and Northwest Boulevard due north of downtown.

Miller assured Burke that he’s sensitive to the legacy of dumping social services in poor sections of the city, suggesting that he wouldn’t support locating a needle exchange on the east side, which is predominantly African American.

“What we’re seeing with this current epidemic is that it disproportionately people — most of the people that we’re serving, they’re kids from Buena Vista,” Miller said. “They’re out on Polo [Road]. They’re around the universities, so I don’t think strategically it would be good to place any kind of harm reduction facility, except for maybe doing some sex worker outreach work in certain areas of town.”

After some discussion, council members asked the legal staff to bring back a revised proposal that would establish a process for a special-use permit instead of a zoning-based regulation to present at the next meeting in April. MacIntosh also asked Miller to provide research at the next meeting to back up his assertion that the negative impact of needle exchange programs on residential neighborhoods is minimal.

If and when the public safety committee recommends location restrictions on need exchange programs, the proposal would go before the City-County Planning Board and then to city council for final consideration.

Some nearby residents were upset that Miller and his fellow volunteers launched the needle exchange program in December 2016 without notifying them in advance. About 40 people showed up for a meeting with Miller and fellow volunteer Erika Mishoe that by all accounts became heated. But some of the residents came away supporting the program after Miller and Mishoe explained how it worked.

Salvador Patiño, the president of the West Salem Neighborhood Association, said in a Facebook message to Triad City Beat that the association supports the needle-exchange program, but at the same time agreed to monitor it closely and hold the volunteers accountable.

“I know Colin has been told that John Larson is working on behalf of the WSNA on this,” Patiño said. “However, as an organization we haven’t taken a stance (since we haven’t had any issues). I know there are some neighbors who don’t like having it (it is a diverse neighborhood, so we have a lot of different opinions), but I think the majority of the neighborhood doesn’t even know it’s there.”

Heiko Wiggers, who lives next door to Green Street Church, said in a letter to TCB earlier this month that while he supports needle exchange programs, a residential neighborhood just isn’t the right place for the service.

“We have two [young] children, and there are other kids in the neighborhood, not to mention a school bus stop exactly in front of the church,” he wrote.

Wiggers said in a subsequent email that supporters of the needle exchange don’t appreciate how the program undermines quality of life in the neighborhood. “Up until last summer it was possible to have cookouts at nearby Granville Park (about 300 meters from the church). Now, the restrooms there are permanently chained off because addicts used the facilities to shoot up.”

William Royston, the city’s recreation and parks director, said the closure of the restrooms is a seasonal function of winterizing the facilities and has nothing to do with illicit drug use.

“The restrooms are closed off towards the beginning of November,” he said. “Every year we winterize the restrooms and turn the water off. Since the water isn’t on we don’t want people going in to use the restroom without water because it would leave a big mess. We de-winterize them and open them back up n the latter part of March or the first of April. We try to have all the restrooms open at least by Easter weekend.”

Larson expressed irritation when asked after the meeting what proportion of residents in the neighborhood have told him they favor regulating the needle exchange or forcing it to relocate.

“I have no idea,” he said. “I haven’t gone door to door.”

He argued that the issue isn’t about one neighborhood or one program, while conceding that the proposed ordinance would require Twin City Harm Reduction Collective to relocate. More to the point, Larson argued, the city needs to come up with a plan for regulating the location of a function that’s new under state law.

“Right now it’s a free for all,” he said.