OC Supes Ask Why Needles Should Be Free When Residents Can't Even Get Plastic Bags

A line of homeless people at the Santa Ana riverbed. Orange County officials said they found 14,000 needles after the site was cleared this winter. Jill Replogle/KPCC

At a heated emergency meeting Friday, Orange County Supervisors pledged to fight a needle exchange program intended by the state to stem the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C. With the new OC mobile exchange authorized to open as early Monday, the supervisors voted unanimously to begin legal action against the effort.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett called state health officials' announcement this week that they would allow exchanges in Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Orange and Santa Ana "a recipe for disaster."

"This is about a society which is starting to sanction this kind of behavior, and trying to tell all of us that it's OK," Supervisor Todd Spitzer said at the meeting. "It's not OK! We're losing our neighborhoods, we're losing our county."

Supervisor Andrew Nelson said that "common sense left the building a long time ago," even as he wondered aloud at how likely the county will be to win this fight. Nelson questioned the wisdom of providing no-cost needles when Californians are not able to get plastic bags at grocery stores.

Board Chair Andrew Do said he hopes the county's action Friday will translate into a temporary restraining order.

The Costa Mesa City Council voted late on Friday to join the legal action. In a statement, the city said "California public health officials disregarded overwhelming evidence that the group proposing to operate the needle exchange program in our city has been negligent in the past."

SAFETY VS HEALTH CONCERNS

Several supervisors said they had serious concerns that that needles will be littered in areas where they could stab children, citizens and public employees.

There may be cause such concern. An estimated 14,000 syringes were collected at the Santa Ana River Trail after a homeless encampment was evicted. The group that will run the exchange has argued that they would have left the area cleaner had they been allowed to operate near the encampment. The group's volunteers had been collecting 30,000 syringes a week in Orange County.

State health officials say they have "identified Orange County as among the California counties most vulnerable to rapid spread of injection drug use-related HIV and HCV infections."

In a letter dated August 6 that outlines operating hours for the new locations, state health officials point to the rise of HIV/AIDS and chronic Hepatitis C in Orange County in recent years. And they note that Orange County has no current needle exchange program in place.

THE BACKSTORY

This fight has been going on for some time.

The non-profit Orange County Needle Exchange Program operated in Santa Ana in recent years, but was shut down by the city in January.

Then the group applied to run a revived, multi-city exchange in March. That was met with strong resistance from county and local leaders.

In a June letter, the organization's leaders tried to address those concerns. They wrote that they had limited the maximum number of needles a person may receive at 200, and would operate as a mobile exchange across cities, to address needs throughout the county.

The letter also disagreed with Do's assessment that needle exchanges would be a "magnet for drug users", writing that drug use is already common across Orange County.

"Needles are not addictive and clean supplies are not addictive," said Orange County Needle Exchange Program board member Dallas Augustine on Friday. "People are going to use whether or not we are there."

'PEOPLE ARE DYING'

"Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, Orange County is being devastated by the opioid crisis," Augustine said. "People are dying, and they don't have to."

She said her group will contest the county's efforts, and go forward with the program until a court orders it not to. The current plan is to begin operations in September, though the exchange will be permitted to operate its mobile exchanges starting on Monday.

To Augustine, the supervisors' rhetoric was overblown. "This is a very small program that will in no way have the dramatic impacts that that the supervisors are projecting," she told LAist.

Needle exchanges operate in neighboring Los Angeles and San Diego counties.


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