Lewis County becomes first county in the state to regulate needle exchange programs

Commissioners Swope, Brummer vote in favor of ordinance while Pollock opposes it 


Lewis County on Tuesday officially became the first county in the state to restrict syringe service programs (SSPs) following a process that included threats of legal action, pleas for additional cooperation and multiple delays.

“At the end of the day, we’ll keep doing what we do and figuring out how to operate,” Gather Church Pastor Cole Meckle said after the Lewis County commissioners voted 2-1 in favor of a new ordinance Tuesday at the Lewis County Courthouse.

Gather currently operates the county’s only needle exchange program. 

The ordinance passed Tuesday bans mobile needle exchange programs, requires program operators to offer “on-site counseling or referrals for an approved substance use disorder treatment program,” bans needle exchange programs from use as a “safe or supervised injection site” and bans county money from funding such programs, among other requirements.

The ordinance also requires the needle exchange to operate as a one-for-one — meaning to get a new needle, a participant would have to turn in a used one — and forbids “other drug paraphernalia” from being “issued or distributed in any manner.”

“When we have record high numbers across the country of deaths when it comes to drug addiction and overdose, we have to start doing things different and thinking about things differently,” Commissioner Sean Swope, who initially proposed the ordinance, said. “And to continue down the road that we’re going, it’s only going to extend the problem.”

Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found nearly 70% of the overdose deaths in 2022 involved illegally manufactured fentanyl, a powder commonly smoked or ingested rather than injected through a syringe.

“The interesting irony of this whole exercise is that injectable drugs are yesterday’s drug,” said Commissioner Lindsey Pollock, who voted against the ordinance. “The issue we’re really facing now, and the overdoses that have been alluded to, is fentanyl that is used, primarily, by smoking or some form of inhalation. This has been a whole lot of work that really doesn’t address our current problem.”

The ordinance passed with the support of Commissioner Scott Brummer and Swope, over the rejection of Pollock, whose alternative ordinance died without additional consideration.

“I would just like to say that there is much common ground between the two drafts of ordinance 1354,” Pollock said. “We can all agree that we do not want needle litter in our community. We don’t want safer injection sites. We do not want syringe exchange programs in close proximity to parks, libraries. And we do want to know who is providing those service programs.”

Pollock called the version that ultimately passed “a prime example of government overreach.” In a show of solidarity, Pollock joined Meckle and a collection of gallery members in wearing purple to Tuesday’s hearing, a color widely seen as a symbol of overdose awareness. 

“It’s also the hill you choose to die on,” Pollock said of her decision to wear purple. “And for me, that’s public health.”

While Brummer and Swope claimed the ordinance will help fight the uptick in overdose deaths plaguing Lewis County, Pollock contends it will ultimately have a negative impact on community health.

“We hear a lot about enabling, and the only thing these increased restrictions are going to enable is the increased transmission of bloodborne diseases through the reuse of dirty needles,” Pollock said.

An amendment proposed by Swope will allow Gather, the county’s sole needle exchange operator, to operate its mobile unit exclusively at their clinic on Tower Avenue in Centralia through Dec. 31, 2025.

Meckle said he was pleased Gather could temporarily continue to operate its mobile unit, though he wished other amendments would have been addressed.

“One of the things I would like to clarify is what this ordinance does not do. It does not prevent needle exchange. It does not prevent outreach, by Gather Church or any other organization, to reach out to those who are addicted,” Brummer said, adding Lewis County does not currently fund needle exchange programs. “It does not prevent an exchange program in East County. It does not limit their ability to functionally serve with this kind of harm reduction. It just provides guidelines.”

Still, the potential for litigation lingered over the commissioners’ hearing room. In the approval process, the commissioners held multiple executive sessions to discuss letters claiming the ordinance “likely” violates state and federal law.

“Because syringe exchange programs are authorized by statute, we believe Ordinance 1354 is likely preempted by state law,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington wrote in a letter dated March 25.

Kaplan and Grady, a law firm specializing in civil rights, previously claimed in a letter dated March 18 that the ordinance “as written, likely violates federal civil rights laws.”

“If implemented, it will likely lead to a federal civil rights lawsuit for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act (RA), and the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution,” wrote David Sinkman, an attorney at the firm.

The Chronicle requested comment from representatives for the ACLU of Washington and Kaplan and Grady following Tuesday’s proceedings.

According to the letter from Kaplan and Grady, a federal challenge to a restrictive zoning ordinance resulted in the town of DuBois, Pennsylvania, paying $132,800 in damages and over $270,000 in attorney fees and costs.

As passed, three or more violations of “any portion” of the ordinance could result in a misdemeanor charge for needle exchange operators in Lewis County, a penalty the ACLU of Washington said puts the ordinance “in direct conflict with the Uniformed Controlled Substance Act as the lawfulness of needle exchange programs are expressly authorized under RCW 69.50.4121(3).”

According to Meckle, if the threat of criminal penalty and the ban on “other drug paraphernalia” would have been removed, “it would be an OK ordinance.”

Swope, who previously stated that Lewis County will “probably going to have some type of litigation” with the ordinance, said Tuesday the proposal emphasizes "drug treatment instead of enablement.”

“I worked very closely with our prosecuting attorney’s office. We had several meetings,” Swope said. “I feel very comfortable about the ordinance that we’ve put forward and that we’ve approved today, and that it will stand up to scrutiny.”

Likewise, Brummer said, “We believe that this is a solid ordinance that will withstand judicial inquiries.

“We’re comfortable with every part of the version that we are approving here today.”

Commissioner candidate Christina Riley, who is challenging Pollock for her seat, said the ordinance will ensure needle exchange programs are “operating in the safest manners in all aspects.”

“This will not only benefit those who are struggling with addiction but the larger community,” Riley said, “as the improper disposal of needles and syringes poses a very serious threat to our public safety and our welfare.”

Research funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that “syringe services programs do not increase drug use.” According to the NIDA, “researchers found 86% fewer used syringes in parks and sidewalks in a community that had a syringe services program than in a similar community without an equivalent program.”