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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

West Virginia: Research Suggests Conflicting Drug Laws May Keep Contaminated Needles in Circulation, Contribute to Hepatitis C Infections

Acute hepatitis C infections rose 98 percent between 2010 and 2015 nationwide, largely because more people were injecting drugs. A team of West Virginia University researchers surveyed 100 people who attend needle exchange programs to determine what makes obtaining clean needles — and responsibly getting rid of used ones — difficult. Respondents cited one obstacle more than any other: fear of arrest.

“I believe the biggest barrier to needle exchange is paraphernalia laws and policing behaviors,” said Dr. Steve Davis, an associate professor in the West Virginia University School of Public Health, who led the study. The team’s findings, which appear in Harm Reduction Journal, bear that out. Nearly three-fourths of the study’s participants (72 percent) said they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they could “get in trouble from the police” for carrying needles around.

As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports sharing needles is the number one reason people get hepatitis C today. Dr. Davis’ research project is the first to quantify the barriers to using new needles obtained from needle exchange programs in Appalachian locations. The survey respondents were selected from two programs in West Virginia. Previous studies focused on large metropolitan populations.

West Virginia is one of few states that doesn’t outlaw the purchase or possession of drug paraphernalia, including syringes and hypodermic needles. “But some local laws are being passed that criminalize possession of a new syringe unless a person has a prescription,” Dr. Davis said, “and some of the people who inject drugs that I interviewed mentioned being cited for possession of new needles. It is my belief that this confusion over conflicting state and local laws contributes to fear of possessing new needles. 

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