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Wheeling Native Amy Shuler Goodwin Vies for Charleston Mayor

Photo provided Charleston mayoral candidates JB Akers, left, and Amy Shuler Goodwin debate Tuesday evening at the Little Theatre at the Coliseum and Convention Center in Charleston.

CHARLESTON — A debate between Charleston mayoral candidates JB Akers and Amy Shuler Goodwin grew heated Tuesday evening when the conversation turned to a candidate’s alleged support of medically supervised sites for drug users.

Akers, a Republican, has criticized comments Democrat Goodwin made earlier this year in a post published on Facebook.

Goodwin listed “community and council roundtables on injection locations,” as one of several “solid solutions” on harm reduction for the city.

Proponents of safe or supervised injection sites say they’re an alternative to people using drugs in public places or indoors alone. They’ve been shown to reduce the harm associated with drug use and prevent overdose deaths, according to the Harm Reduction Coalition. Such sites are illegal in the United States.

At the time, the city was considering making hypodermic needles illegal, which would have effectively closed needle exchange programs.

Asked if she supports safe injection sites, Goodwin said she doesn’t know much about them. She said that, as mayor, she would have allowed City Council members to have conversations about harm reduction.

“Listen, if we have problems in the city, please feel confident and know that I won’t shout people down or kick people off of committees,” she said. “I’ll allow conversations to happen. Whether I agree with you or not, I’ll allow that conversation to happen.

“But for folks that say I want to expand the (health department’s needle exchange) program or that I’m for safe injection sites is just a lie,” Goodwin said.

Earlier this year, after the council voted to delay taking action on a bill that would have outlawed needles and effectively closed needle exchange programs in the city, Mayor Danny Jones rearranged council members on committees so that a new membership of public safety committee members would consider a potential new bill about needle exchange programs. No such bill has been introduced.

Akers said that, as mayor, he would never allow conversations about safe injection sites “which will attract a criminal transient population to the city like we’ve never seen before where people only come to perpetuate drug use and steal to fuel that habit.”

“I’m for programs that work,” Akers said. “I want people to stop using drugs.”

The debate, sponsored by AARP West Virginia, the Charleston Area Alliance, Charleston Main Streets, the Charleston Gazette-Mail and WCHS/WVAH-TV, brought a full house to the Little Theatre at the Coliseum and Convention Center.

Independent candidate Andy Backus, while not invited to participate, had his own event at Black Sheep Burrito and streamed to Facebook following the debate.

Akers said he would support a needle exchange program that is medically based and focused on getting people to stop using drugs. He called the Health Department’s suspended needle exchange program a “cattle call,” where people were getting clean needles every minute.

“Once every 60 seconds, someone went running through that line, OK?” Akers said. “That’s not taking care of that population. I want these people to do better. I want them to stop using drugs.”

Asked if she supports needle exchange programs, Goodwin replied that people may not know that there is a currently a needle exchange program operating at West Virginia Health Right and it seems to be working.

Both candidates said they would support moving the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department from its current location across from the Charleston Town Center mall and the newly renovated Coliseum and Convention Center so that the city could market the property.

Akers said the health department should be moved.

“I don’t think that’s the spot for it,” Akers said.

Goodwin said the idea is worthy of discussion.

“But you can’t have a positive and thoughtful discussion with folks that you continue to villainize,” she said.

Lori Kersey is a staff writer for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

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