West Asheville group proposes changes to state needle exchange legislation

LOVE THY NEIGHBOR?: Tensions continue to rise between some West Asheville residents and the Steady Collective, a harm-reduction organization that distributes clean needles once a week from Firestorm Books and Coffee located on Haywood Road. Photo from Google Street View

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.”  

Limiting access

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. 

Rising rhetoric

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


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

12 thoughts on “West Asheville group proposes changes to state needle exchange legislation

  1. Bo

    They were no where near the first group to distribute naloxone, NC HARM REDUCTION passed the laws and also distributed to all other agencies, and helped secure funding for more.

    • Aaron

      The article accurately states that they were the first organization to distribute narcan in BUNCOMBE county. Several years ago, NCHRC, while very active in other parts of the state didn’t have a solid presence in Asheville. The steady collective was the first organizations to distribute naloxone in buncombe county. Only recently, has NCHRC expanded to services to the western portion of the state. They provide services in Waynesville, NC. A city in Haywood County.

      However, members of the steady collective have volunteered and worked for NCHRC. They are absolutely proud to be partnered with NCHRC, who has done so much to advance harm reduction efforts in NC. Not only are members of the steady collective proud to call the folks of NCHRC partners and colleagues, they are our friends as well. NCHRC has done so much for the people of North Carolina. They are an amazing organization. And every harm reduction organization in this state has greatly benefited from their accomplishments.

      • Jeremy S

        NCHRC has had a presence in Asheville for over a decade, including an office in the city proper.

  2. Noah

    They find needles in the rainbow mountain children’s school parking so your needle exchange can piss off.

    • Enlightened Enigma

      they don’t mind…they are full blown liberal progressives and finding needles is just another part of living in a diverse community, right?
      RM has their own Equity ‘Director’ there too…(WHY would such a tiny ass school need an equity director in such a diverse community?) It’s all BS.

  3. John Penley

    Interesting… a while back John Miall went after the Asheville Art Museum and now its Firestorm books hey JM how about the out of control Gentrification monster that is bulldozing West Asheville into a place where greedy property owners want dead homeless addicts gone from public view because of HIV and Hep C so they can keep realizing profits from their land speculation. Thomas Wolfe would be rolling over in his grave if he could see Asheville especially West Asheville now. One question did any of these concerned citizens serve in the US Military and are Vets … well folks many of those homeless folks did unlike you all.

  4. Tim

    It’s interesting that the community blames a syringe access program that operates one day a week for less than four hours on all the problems in the area. I frequently visit West Asheville and I’ve never had to step over a homeless person. I have had to step off the sidewalk because of crowds waiting on line for an ice cream or because someone with a double-wide stroller refuses to give an inch. Instead of restricting access to sterile syringes and treatment, neighbors could advocate for funding for more harm reduction style programs throughout Buncombe and other counties. Folks who use drugs do not give up their rights and deserve the same access to services as everyone else.

  5. SpareChange

    Clearly, the needs of those living at the margins of society should not be ignored. Focused assistance (whether from public, private, or not for profit entities), aimed at assisting them in attaining greater mental, physical and economic stability is a necessary endeavor for virtually every community.

    However, those efforts need not (and should not) come at the expense of working class folks who are trying to subsist or even modestly prosper. We have to stop framing the interests of those at the margins in a way that ultimately alienates others.

    This kind of moralistic, “screw the neighborhood, and the neighbors, and the surrounding small businesses” attitude may leave some thinking they are fighting the good fight on behalf of those with profound problems, but it is not advancing the interests of either those they believe they are serving, nor that of a broader political agenda bringing change to the community or society at large. It is merely pitting those with nothing, against those who have a little.

    • Haywood Ya Calm Down

      Much of the conflict derives from Brown’s rather juvenile, self righteous and abrasive tone. It’s certainly true that addicts need support and harm prevention is a crucial component of that. Educating WAVL residents about harm prevention and building bridges, might have helped from the start, but that’s not what Brown wants. The friction between SC and WAVL residents is very much a product of Brown’s personality and posturing. The entire strategy is an own goal.

  6. Winwin13

    I’m a mother of a school-age child and a long-time resident in wavl. I walk my child to school. We often see these young folks outside of firestorm or changing their clothes on the church lawn across the street. Kids have to be careful not to kick a syringe in leaf piles, and our school has to walk the playground/school grounds before hours to make sure no syringes are laying about. We have syringe disposal boxes as well. This doesn’t have to be an either/or issue. How can we support these young adults (many of whom are off-meds) in getting treatment, support , and their other needs met, while also supporting the small businesses in the area and protecting the children from literally getting poked with needles? Really, we’re smart enough and have enough compassion to find some helpful solutions for everyone.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.