If members of the West Asheville Neighborhood Alliance have their way, needle exchange programs will face significantly greater restrictions on where they can operate in Buncombe County and throughout the state. At the Nov. 15 meeting of the Council of Independent Business Owners, representatives of the group presented a plan to change state legislation governing programs that provide syringes and other supplies.
The move comes as tensions continue to rise between the Steady Collective, a harm-reduction organization that distributes clean needles and overdose prevention supplies from Firestorm Books and Coffee at 610 Haywood Road each Tuesday between 1:30 and 4 p.m., and some West Asheville residents who oppose its location.
During the meeting, West Asheville property owner John Miall, along with West Asheville Neighborhood Alliance representatives Sanjit Patel and Conda Painter, described the West Asheville needle exchange program as the cause of increased crime and homelessness in the area and called for tightening the state’s current legislation.
“The problem [in West Asheville] is [at] an epidemic level. One of the things you’ll have on your table this morning is a proposed legislative change that we think needs to happen,” Miall said as he introduced the neighborhood group’s presentation. “There are so many loopholes in the law for needle exchanges that these groups are walking all over us.”
In July 2016, former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 972 into law, making syringe access programs legal in North Carolina. Just two months later, the Steady Collective held its first syringe access outreach day at Firestorm, according to the organization’s website.
Patel claimed during the meeting that the law allows Steady Collective and other needle exchange programs to operate in any location, including residential areas and near schools.
He distributed a handout showing proposed changes to the current law. Those alterations would include requiring syringe supplies to be marked with a program’s logo for easy identification and tracking; the approval of a majority of nearby residents for facilities located close to neighborhoods; background checks for exchange operators and property owners; and $1 million in general and liability insurance.
The changes would also restrict stationary exchange programs from locating within a 3-mile radius of a school zone and prohibit mobile needle exchange programs from operating out of a fixed dwelling.
All three syringe access programs now operating within Buncombe County — Steady Collective, the Needle Exchange Program of Asheville (located at the Western North Carolina AIDS Project on Fairview Road) and a clinic at the Buncombe County Health Department on Coxe Avenue — are located within 3 miles of a school, the Steady Collective pointed out in a Nov. 19 statement to Xpress.
“[The proposed legislation] will help get needle exchanges away from our schools,” Patel said, noting that Rainbow Community School, located at 574 Haywood Road, had previously raised concerns about the proximity of the program to school grounds. Representatives from the school did not return requests for comment by press time.
Holding the line
The proposed legislation comes on the heels of a lengthy battle between the Steady Collective and the city of Asheville, which had previously claimed that the group’s West Asheville location was in violation of zoning requirements and issued notices of violation that threatened to close the program. The city dropped that assertion in March after more than six months of discussions and a drawn-out appeals process. The Steady Collective’s needle exchange program is currently considered to be in compliance with Asheville’s zoning code.
According to data presented by Buncombe County Health and Human Services officials at the Let’s Talk Opioids event on Oct. 28, Buncombe County experienced a 30% decrease in opioid-related deaths 2017-18 after years of increases. In its statement, the Steady Collective also noted that while it provides clean needles, it also has distributed nearly 6,200 naloxone overdose reversal kits; 877 successful overdose reversals have been reported to the organization since 2016, Steady Collective said.
“We need harm reduction in Appalachia now more than ever and we oppose any attempts to regulate programs out of cities like Asheville, where rates of overdose are particularly high. People using drugs deserve support, and we are honored to meet people where they are and provide needed care,” the statement read. “Steady Collective was the first harm reduction program in Buncombe County to distribute naloxone and has continued to remain deeply committed to the Principles of Harm Reduction [a set of national best practices] despite immense pressure to alter evidence-based services or close certain locations.”
In a Nov. 18 email to Xpress, representatives from Firestorm Books and Coffee acknowledged community concerns about the distance between needle exchanges and schools but disputed the claim that children are endangered by the program’s proximity.
“Harm reduction requires us to consider many types of harm, including harm to children. There is no evidence that providing lifesaving services to drug users, in the community where those individuals live, escalates the risk of harm to children,” the statement read. “While we acknowledge anxiety over the potential for harm, our cooperative supports evidence-based approaches to public health and therefore opposes legislative restrictions rooted in fear and hate. We are open to collaboration and good-faith dialogue with those who disagree, but attempts to vilify or further marginalize members of our community should have no platform.”
The statement from the Steady Collective said that despite the neighborhood group’s efforts, it has no plans of discontinuing its services at the West Asheville location.
Language from those both for and against the exchange has continued to escalate in recent months. During the CIBO meeting, Patel and Painter presented a video in which Patel describes Firestorm Books and Coffee as a front to promote “leftist ideology” and sow discord in the community.
“Their movement has been brainwashing young children with books designed to teach them white people are bad and to have a responsibility to speak up against other white people,” Patel says in the video. “I’m providing some background information on the bookstore which shows how unsavory these people are and how they intend to dismantle the community.”
In the video, Patel also pointed to an Oct. 17 community meeting hosted by the Asheville Police Department at the Grace Baptist Church, in which he says West Asheville residents were heckled for speaking out against the needle exchange program. He also said that business owners who opposed the exchange had their personal details made public and that their businesses were subjected to dozens of false negative reviews online.
Hillary Brown, director of the Steady Collective, who attended the Oct. 17 meeting, also described it as confrontational, writing in a widely circulated Facebook post that some residents pushed for more police and longer jail stays for offenders while blaming the Steady Collective for the rise in crime, homeless people and drug use in the area.
“People asked what they are supposed to tell their children when they have to ‘step around’ homeless people in the morning on their walk to school. A woman sitting next to a Firestorm [representative] said she hoped drug users die,” Brown wrote in the post.
“I look forward to continuing to serve folks this system of oppression and its beneficiaries seek to destroy,” Brown continued. “And I have no plans to argue in defense of those folks’ existence and care in [West Asheville] crime prevention/neighborhood meetings anymore. I just can’t. It’s too horrific.”
Additional reporting by Daniel Walton