Roanoke police chief explains decision to approve needle exchange program

ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) - Monday night, Roanoke City approved a plan it will send to the Virginia Department of Health aimed at reducing harm related to the opioid crisis. Part of that Harm Reduction Protocol includes a mobile free needle exchange program. It's something Roanoke Police Chief Tim Jones was vehemently against.

"When you prepare to go into a body of water, one of the first things they tell you when you're swimming is make sure you know the depth of the pool before you jump in," Jones said. "That's kind of the position the police chief is in."

But Monday's proposal could not have been approved without Jones signature. City leaders got it, not by Jones' change of heart, but by a change of plan.

With his signature, Jones is now in the position to make Roanoke the fourth jurisdiction in Virginia a place where people with drug addictions can obtain free, clean needles. This in an effort to reduce the spread of diseases related to needle sharing.

He was originally outspoken about his disapproval of this part of the Comprehensive Harm Reduction protocol. He explained to WDBJ7 on Tuesday that he was worried the program could draw in people from out of town, increasing the homeless population and straining social services.
He also worried those needles would later be sold on the street and was concerned about overstepping state laws on drug paraphernalia.

"That puts public safety at a real disadvantage because the law doesn't give us a whole lot of wiggle room," he explained.

But in working with other city leaders to address those issues, Jones is confident moving forward.

"We have crafted this one in such a way that we have met my concerns and we have continued to support the needs of those who are afflicted with a substance abuse disorder and protect the integrity of our community," he said.

Jones wouldn't go into specifics about the changes made to the plan, being that it still needs approval from the Virginia Department of Health.

But the application the city submitted shows that the Harm Reduction Model is aimed at not just getting folks needles but getting them the help they need from social services with testing, counselors and medical care.

It also includes strict requirements about who is allowed to take advantage of the program. Participants must carry a card identifying themselves, acknowledging they understand state law about illegal substances and drug paraphernalia.

Jones said the plan will likely be approved by the health department in June. More information can be found in the document attached to this article.

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