Law Enforcement Lead West Virginia Efforts to Implement Syringe Exchange Programs

Some people were surprised when West Virginia became one of the first Southern states to operate an above-ground syringe exchange program. But for Jim Johnson, now retired Chief of Police for Huntington, West Virginia, syringe exchange was a common sense solution to an increasingly complex problem.

"We were looking at a drug problem that we didn't see any answers for," he says. "We were arresting more people than ever, housing more people in prison and jail, and narcotic seizures were higher than we've ever had, but the drug problem was just getting worse."

So Johnson met with Huntington Mayor Steve Williams, who launched an Office of Drug Control Policy to look into the problem. They started talking to community members about drug-related issues. With the help of Deputy Chief Jan Rader they also started collecting data and realized that heroin seizures and hepatitis C rates were rising rapidly at almost the exact same rates among the same population of drug users. They looked at costs. Shockingly, they discovered that their small county of 97,000 residents would spend $50 million to $90 million dollars in 2015 on the cost of health care treatment alone, including treatment for hepatitis B and C, HIV, and injection-related complications.

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