Stanly commissioners nix needle exchange program in funding vote

The Uwharrie Harm Reduction Initiative will still continue its outreach

Photo courtesy of StanlyTV

ALBEMARLE — As a stipulation for receiving additional opioid settlement grant funding, a drug initiative based in Stanly County will end its existing needle exchange program on June 30.

At the Stanly County Board of Commissioners meeting on June 3, the Uwharrie Harm Reduction Initiative — anchored by the ‘Open Hands of North Carolina’ faith-based organization — asked the county for $79,055 of funding towards peer support.

Sparking a local controversy and divided opinions, UHRI has conducted a needle exchange program where people can trade in dirty syringes for new ones.

The program has been funded with opioid settlement funds by the county for more than a year, in addition to funding from the Bloomberg Foundation.

While an initial motion to pass the funding request for UHRI failed last week, a motion to approve the funding on the basis of the syringe service stopping at the end of June passed unanimously with a 7-0 vote.

The request was initially tabled at the commissioners’ May 13 meeting but brought back after UHRI put forth a proposal to limit their syringe exchange program to 20 syringes per person per visit, or 40 per person per week.

“They also proposed to continue to build relationships with other agencies, attending monthly meetings to collaborate,” County Manager Andy Lucas told the commissioners. “Their proposed opioid summit funding would be utilized to support one full-time and two part-time peer support personnel that engage with these folks when they come to Uwharrie Harm Reduction, and to try to help those folks move towards sobriety and getting themselves into treatment — to help move them from being dependent individuals into being independent.”

Bob Harmon, executive director of Open Hands of North Carolina, added: “We’d like to see if that would be something that would be a compromise with the county commissioners with what we’ve done. We’re trying to make sure we can continue to serve these folks that are truly struggling.”

In a failed motion, Chairman Bill Lawhon and Vice Chair Mike Barbee joined Commissioners Patty Crump and Brandon King in voting against the funding, even with the stricter requirements on the syringe distribution rate; Commissioners Trent Hatley, Peter Asciutto and Scott Efird voted for it.

Shortly after that 4-3 vote, the board found common ground in its next vote.

“I would like to make the motion that we support the recommended $79,055 for Uwharrie Harm Reduction in the fiscal year 2024-25 to fund their peer support personnel with the contingency that the syringe program is ended June 30,” Crump said, prior to the 7-0 approval of the updated funding requirements.

After the board’s decision, UHRI worker Gay Smith asked for clarification that her staff could still give out the Narcan overdose treatment medication, wound care kits, band-aids, triple antibiotic ointment and condoms, despite the needle exchange portion of the project being phased out.

Smith added that many clients are using fentanyl, as well as the new drug xylazine, which does not respond to the Narcan treatments: “That’s gonna be the next big drug that’s going to come out and be prevalent on the street.”

Lawhon ensured that UHRI could still continue the rest of its work, as listed previously by Smith.

The commissioners are set to hold their next regular meeting on July 8 at 6 p.m. inside the Gene McIntyre Meeting Room at Stanly County Commons.