A debate over where to allow needle-exchange programs isn’t going away anytime soon, as members of a Winston-Salem City Council committee continued wrestling with the question on Monday.
The presence of a needle-exchange program at Green Street United Methodist Church has divided opinion in West Salem and left council members wondering whether zoning alone can deal with the questions of trust and safety that are being asked.
The council is looking at how to regulate needle exchanges because they’re something new here.
Colin Miller is the founder of a needle-exchange program called the Twin City Harm Reduction Collective. Taking advantage of a recently-passed state law, Miller’s group, like others around the state, make clean syringes available to drug users in an effort to prevent the spread of disease. The program also hopes to get drug users into treatment.
Miller said Monday that he’s worked to build relationships in West Salem and demonstrate that his volunteer effort is run well and poses no danger to the community.
“I’m wondering why we couldn’t look for some sort of solution that would not put the burden of proof onto organizations that are trying to save lives and have shown they have been successful,” Miller said.
But a woman who lives beside the church told the city’s Public Safety Committee on Monday that the volunteer group hasn’t done enough to work with neighbors:
“They have sort of begun to participate in neighborhood discussions, but I can’t say that I trust that will continue,” said Kate McFarland, the neighbor.
Barry Carlton, who owns property in West Salem, said the neighborhood has drug users living near the church where the needle-exchange program is run, and said that any such program needs to be well-regulated — and placed elsewhere.
City officials first proposed regulating exchanges by zoning them out of residential areas — an approach that would let the Green Street program remain until 2019.
Then, city leaders decided to look at other methods of regulation: special use zoning, for instance, which would allow a needle-exchange in many zoning classes if they got the necessary clearance from the city council.
Nancy Gould, Carlton’s wife and also a property owner, said her research has shown that in other cities exchanges are located in areas zoned commercially.
“I want to see the program remain at Green Street, but I would like the city and county to commit to a more central location for a major citywide exchange program,” Gould said, suggesting that an agency such as the county Health Department could run an exchange program more comprehensively.
Council Member Jeff MacIntosh said that based on his experience, the issue isn’t so much zoning as how well a program is run.
“Zoning is forever,” MacIntosh said. “Something can go on forever even if the behavior is bad. I have questions about licensing and what tools the city has to stop or contain a program that is not abiding by quality neighborhood standards. What will guarantee the success of any program is trust.”
Council Member D.D. Adams said her concern is protecting neighborhoods because people want to feel safe where they live. Council Member John Larson pointed out that if there was a 2019 deadline coming for Green Street, it would give the volunteer group time to win the confidence of neighbors.
One thing seemed clear Monday: The council is not ready to act. More discussion will take place in June.
“We are going to have to come to some final decision soon,” Council Member Vivian Burke said, voicing a worry that exchanges would be relegated to poor neighborhoods. “We have to be fair. Tonight, I’ll not be ready to vote.”