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‘Harm to harm reduction’: Bill to ban distribution of safe smoking equipment passes House Judiciary

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‘Harm to harm reduction’: Bill to ban distribution of safe smoking equipment passes House Judiciary

Feb 21, 2024 | 6:06 pm ET
By Caity Coyne
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‘Harm to harm reduction’: Bill to ban distribution of safe smoking equipment passes House Judiciary
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Del. Joey Garcia, D-Marion, speaks during the House Judiciary Committee meeting on Feb. 5, 2024, in Charleston, W.Va. (Perry Bennett | West Virginia Legislative Photography)

Members of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted in favor of a bill that would, once again, limit what supplies harm reduction programs can distribute to their clients across West Virginia.

House Bill 4667 would make it illegal for harm reduction programs to hand out any sort of “smoking devices” as part of their services. A committee substitute for the bill was not publicly available by deadline, but counsel for the committee said new language defined “smoking devices” as including but not being limited to bubblers, bongs and pipes.

“It could be whatever is considered a device used to smoke anything,” counsel said.

The proposed new limits for harm reduction programs come as the state has already banned needs-based syringe service programs from operation in West Virginia. Research has shown that access to safe smoking equipment — which includes glass pipes as well as wire screens and other tools that help people who use drugs avoid inhaling toxins from burning dangerous materials — is especially critical in places where access to clean syringes is limited. 

Smoking drugs is a safer alternative to injecting drugs, leading to lower rates of overdoses, HIV, hepatitis and other diseases that can be contracted from sharing syringes or using old, broken syringes.

“Harm reduction programs are distributing smoking devices because they have the benefit to reduce harm from people who are using substances, and that is the whole purpose of a harm reduction program as you can imagine,” Rachel Thaxton, interim director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, told lawmakers in the committee. “There is less of a chance of an overdose if people are smoking something rather than injecting it into the bloodstream … smoking is usually the better option for people.”

Thaxton said the ODCP sees “the benefit” for using and distributing safe smoking equipment in harm reduction programs, but does not believe that implementation of the proposed law would “persuade people” to start injected drug use if they weren’t already doing so. It would, however, limit the options for transitioning people who use drugs off of intravenous use.

Del. Keith Marple, R-Harrison, said he received “a lot of email communications from across the state” urging him to vote no on the bill because of the potential consequences.

“Smoking does not spread the diseases that needles do. [People who sent emails] felt that this is a safer way if people wanted to do drugs,” said Marple, who voted down the bill. “Smoking, using those devices instead of shooting up with needles is going to curb a lot of disease.”

Del. Joey Garcia, D-Marion, said the continued attempts to limit the services offered by harm reduction programs is concerning in West Virginia, where several cities have and continue to see increased rates of HIV, hepatitis and other drugs tied to intravenous drug use. A mountain of research going back decades has shown the benefits of such programs, especially if they are run in a needs-based manner.

“I think, unfortunately in the last couple of years, we’ve done harm to harm reduction programs … this is going after something that appears taboo, and I really don’t think this is the right way to go,” Garcia said. “The idea that there is a way things should be and the way things are — I think that’s a part of harm reduction programs. It’s about looking at the way things are. It’s about making situations better. I think that’s the reason this bill might cause some harm.”

HB 4667 passed House Judiciary via a voice vote, with seven members voting down the bill. It now advances to the full House for consideration.