Pubdate: Sat, 18 Nov 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-7679
Author: Matt Surman, Times Staff Writer


Addiction: Public Health Agency Says The Effort Is Needed To Combat HIV And
Hepatitis. Law Enforcement To Remain Neutral For Now.

Ventura County's Public Health Department is recommending that the county
begin a needle exchange program to stem hepatitis and HIV infection rates.

Public Health Officer Robert Levin will ask the Board of Supervisors to
declare a county emergency, which would pave the way for a program like
those authorized by supervisors in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties.

Members of a county coalition of law enforcement agencies said they won't
fight the exchange program, despite "available evidence [that] doesn't lead
us to recommend the implementation" of such a program, according to Dist.
Atty. Michael Bradbury.

In his report for the Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee--which consists
of the chiefs of the five city police departments and representatives of the
district attorney's office and the Sheriff's Department--Bradbury said that
addicts will continue to share needles, regardless of the program.

He said that although the organization won't oppose the program for now, if
it seems to be "a threat to public order or safety," the group will step in
to shut down the needle exchange.

Supervisor John K. Flynn said he will vote to approve the program because
"when the public health doctor comes to me and says we must do this, then I
take his advice."

Flynn said he believes the issue is one of public health, and he is not
worried about law enforcement's concerns.

"We've taken too many things and shoved them into the criminal justice area,
when they're really health matters," he said.

Supervisor Frank Schillo said there was little that could convince him to
support such a program. He believes that needle exchanges amount to an
endorsement of a drug lifestyle.

"It doesn't sound like much good to me except facilitating their habit," he
said. "This isn't just about needles here. We're talking about crime
problems in communities, whether they use clean or dirty needles."

Schillo acknowledged he could be on the losing end of the Tuesday vote.

"I have been the lonely man lately," he said. "I'm not worried about that at
all. I vote my conscience."

This is the first time the Public Health Department has recommended such a
program, versions of which have been in effect in San Francisco and Los
Angeles for years. Legislation signed by Gov. Gray Davis last year, although
not directly supportive of the programs, protects local needle exchanges
from criminal liability.

That law went into effect in January, greatly watered down from a version
that would have combined needle exchanges with drug treatment. But the new
law offered the opportunity for an emergency declaration here.

"Sometimes declaring an emergency is simply because there's something you
can do about it now," said Dr. Robert Levin, the county's public health
officer. "We don't need to be victims any longer."

Since 1994, 1,467 people have been diagnosed with hepatitis C and 626 with
hepatitis B. There have been 811 confirmed cases of AIDS in the county since
the mid-1980s, according to Levin's report, with an additional 1,000 to
5,000 residents infected with HIV.

According to the report, preliminary studies indicate that 50% of local
intravenous drug users have hepatitis B or C. Among men with AIDS in this
county, 19% are related to injection drug use. Among women, that number
jumps to 45%, much of that attributable to women's sex partners.

Officials say they don't know how many intravenous drug users there are in
the county, but a Sheriff's Department narcotics officer estimated that his
department makes 40 to 50 heroin-possession arrests a week.

Levin said he conservatively estimates that the exchange could stem the
rates of three to eight cases of HIV infection and six to 20 cases of
hepatitis C a year.

In addition to taking on a public health problem, backers say, needle
exchanges force drug users to come into contact with counselors who might be
able to offer help and get dirty needles off the street.

"We can't force them, but we can counsel them and maybe get them into
treatment," said Bruce E. Bradley of Rainbow Alliance, a Ventura-based
nonprofit group expected to take on the project.

If the program is approved, Bradley said he expects it to begin in March at
sites around the county. He said the program will be based on existing
efforts, such as one used in Santa Barbara, which distributes about 60,000
needles a year, Bradley said.

"We're not reinventing the wheel," Bradley said.

His group would pay for the program, he said. "There's no reason not to do
it. We're asking for permission, not money."
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