Roanoke city leaders remain at odds over possible needle exchange program

Program requires police chief and council's approval, among others

By Shayne Dwyer - Reporter

ROANOKE, Va. - Roanoke city leaders are at odds on how to help solve the opioid crisis.

On Monday the collective response team, made up of dozens of people who all play some part in the drug recovery process from healthcare to first responders, presented for the second time to city council. Many members of the program want to establish harm reduction methods, one of which being a needle exchange program.

Syringe exchange programs are allowed by Virginia law, but require the approval of the local governing body, local health officials, and the localities top law enforcement official. In Roanoke, that's Roanoke Police Chief Tim Jones. After being invited to speak before council Monday, Jones again stated his opposition to the program. His primary reservations are over the program's immunity clause, which would ask officers not to arrest program participants for their drug use.

"I take the same oath to obey the law as you folks do, I can not sign something that asks me to condone felony behavior and that's the hiccup here," Jones said.

Roanoke City Manager Bob Cowell is tasked with bringing all sides to an agreement.

"We're going to come out of it I'm confident, I don't know how long it's going to take, but we're going to come out of it on the other side with something everyone feels confident with including the police chief and city council," Cowell said.

City leaders have a 2020 deadline to figure out what they're going to do. There are three other syringe exchange programs in Virginia, including one in Richmond. The Virginia General Assembly would be required to approve any programs after they are approved at the local level as well.

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