Rupert Officials Need Citizen Input On Harm Reduction Program - The West Virginian
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Rupert Officials Need Citizen Input On Harm Reduction Program

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In the last few weeks there has been an uptick in the amount of overdose deaths in the town of Rupert. In addition to the deaths, used syringes have been found laying on sidewalks, at the Rupert Community Park–a playground for children–and at various other locations throughout the town. It has become apparent that something needs to be done to help those with addiction, to prevent unnecessary deaths and protect the community’s citizens. Although members of law enforcement are working overtime to find those committing drug offenses, it is often said that ‘You can’t arrest your way out of a drug epidemic.’ So, if the law enforcement approach isn’t working, what approach will?

Those at Seneca Mental Health Services may have an answer for that question through their Harm Reduction Program, which provides free testing, free supplies and recovery counseling to those with substance abuse disorder, but before a program like this can be brought to the town, Rupert citizens must sign-off on the idea.

In speaking with town officials, many think that a harm reduction program would be beneficial for the community, but they expect a considerable amount of blowback from citizens–especially regarding the program’s needle exchange component. That is why, according to Mayor Steve Baldwin, they want community input before signing off on bringing the harm reduction program to town.

Rick Martin, Quick Response Team Coordinator for Seneca Mental Health Services, spoke before members of the Rupert Town Council at their last meeting about the possibility of providing a once-a-month clinic.

The clinic, if approved, will be in town for four hours one day each month and will include support services including peer recovery coaches, and medical services offered by the Greenbrier County Health Department and from student doctors from the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, Martin explained. Through the clinic, people will receive testing for HIV, AIDS, and sexually transmitted diseases. Doctors will be able to prescribe antibiotics for any abscesses caused from repeated syringe use and the clinic will provide people with Narcan, a drug used to reverse the effects of an overdose, Fentanyl test strips, and clean syringes.

Perhaps one of the best aspects of the harm reduction program is the support that peer recovery coaches can provide to those in the community.

“I will go out and meet people with substance abuse disorders and try to get them into treatment,” Martin, who has recovered from addiction, told council members. “I tell them my story–I show the example that recovery is possible.” He said that he, along with other members of the Quick Response Team, are able to develop relationships with people, so they have the needed resources to “free themselves from addiction.”

“The good thing about harm reduction is that we get to meet with people face to face without any worry about judgment,” Martin added. “We get people with those disorders to call us, and to slowly agree to get into treatment, so that we can turn this epidemic that we have around.”

As for the needle exchange program, Martin said that it is strictly regulated by the state.

During the 2021 West Virginia Legislative session, Senate Bill 331 was passed. The bill requires a license application process for all needle exchange programs as of July 9.

Each person who receives needles must enter counseling, Martin explained. Then, they receive a 30-day supply of clean needles. At the end of that 30 days, every single needle must be returned before the client can receive another 30 day supply.

If all the needles are not returned, the person is taken out of the program, and they do not receive more, Martin said.

According to Martin, the Greenbrier County Commission approved the harm reduction clinic for Fairlea, where the Greenbrier County Health Department is located, but Rupert officials must approve the idea of the clinic before it can enter the town.

To help Rupert officials make the decision, Rainelle resident and peer recovery advocate Melissa Manning, provided the council with a petition signed by over 70 people in the Rupert area in favor of the clinic coming to town. She said that when Rainelle had a harm reduction clinic, at least one person entered treatment each time they set up in town.

Even though Rainelle is now without a harm reduction clinic, Manning said that she still gives people her number, maintains relationships with others and works to end substance abuse.

“It’s constant contact,” Manning said. “They have my number. They have my Facebook. If they just need support, if they need somebody to talk to or if they are ready for treatment…they have that contact and they are comfortable to reach out.”

Martin added that the program has a great success rate at getting people into treatment.

“We do well with getting people on board, and, at least, accepting treatment.”

He noted that some of the people he provides support to have been administered Narcan 16-25 times.

“I just tell them straight up, you are running out of time. People think ‘it will never happen to me,’ but it does,” Martin said. “Of course drug use is dangerous anyway, but with the Fentanyl in it, it’s just, people are dying across the nation. As you have seen, over 100,000 last year, and that wasn’t talked about as much as COVID, but we are faced with an epidemic here, and we can’t arrest our way out of it.”

In Rupert, a considerable amount of time is dedicated to investigating thefts and ending drug activity.

In a September interview with Rupert Police Chief Chuck Burkhamer, he noted that heroin use is becoming prevalent throughout the town–and is slowly taking the place of methamphetamine.

“We have a lot of drug activity,” Burkhamer said, adding that a lot of theft in the town is the result of a person needing to support their drug habit.

Today, officers continue to make arrests and investigate crimes–including catalytic converter thefts, home thefts and even propane tank thefts, one of which was recently stolen from a Rupert church. Officers must also respond to calls regarding overdoses, which is never a good call to get.

The criminal activity is something that those with the Harm Reduction Program are aware of, and want to end.

“A side effect of drug use is criminal behavior,” Martin said. “I hate to say this is the type of behavior that happens, but drugs make people do things that they wouldn’t normally do.”

After council discussion, Mayor Baldwin stated that the decision to bring a harm reduction to Rupert should really be left up to the citizens.

“We need public opinion,” Baldwin said at the recent council meeting. “I don’t want to just jump the gun. I know there was a lot of controversy surrounding the program when it was in Rainelle…I think the biggest hurdle that you will have is the controversy that surrounds needles, but most of that controversy comes from either uninformed people, or misinformed people,” Baldwin continued.

In a later interview with The West Virginia Daily News, Baldwin said that he welcomes community input. He encourages citizens to attend the upcoming council meeting on Thursday, January 13, at 6 pm, at Rupert Town Hall, and voice their opinion.

In the meantime, he also encourages residents to become informed about harm reduction by contacting those at Seneca Mental Health with questions they may have.

At the end of the day, Martin added that the program is really about saving people–even if it is just one person at a time.

“We don’t get 100 percent of the people in, but we do quite well getting people in with us, and on board–at least attempting treatment,” Martin said. “We want to let people know that we are here for them.”

“That’s what we do in harm reduction. We save lives.”

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