Pubdate: Wed, 14 May 2003
Source: Californian, The (CA)
Contact:  2003, North County Times
Author: Rob O'Dell, Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)
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RIVERSIDE -- A fourth try at creating a needle exchange program for
intravenous drug users was narrowly defeated by the county Board of
Supervisors on Tuesday. 

By the same 3-2 vote, the board also voted to oppose a state bill that would
allow needles to be sold at pharmacies without a prescription. 

The contentious needle-exchange issue, which was debated several times over
the last year, pitted the philosophy of those in law enforcement against
those in the county's health agency. 

County health officials, led by Director Gary Feldman, have persistently
pushed the program, contending that it is desperately needed to stop the
spread of hepatitis C and AIDS through the sharing of needles. 

Feldman said Tuesday that because so many intravenous drug users contract
hepatitis C every year, liver disease is "the largest public health problem
in Riverside County." There is no successful treatment of hepatitis C, he
said, and many sufferers must ultimately receive a liver transplant. The
disease can also be fatal. 

Feldman said the county's problem dwarfs the number of people being infected
by AIDS, West Nile Virus or SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), health
problems that often grab headlines. But several supervisors, who agree with
the county's top law-enforcement officials, contended that an exchange
program and the state bill would effectively sanction illegal activity. 

Sheriff Bob Doyle and District Attorney Grover Trask have consistently
spoken out against needle-exchange programs. 

At the end of the 15-minute debate, supervisors Jim Venable, John Tavaglione
and Marion Ashley came out against the program. 

"The law is the law, and we all need to obey the law," Venable said. 

The proposal would have created two needle-exchange centers in the
unincorporated areas of the county near Riverside and Lake Elsinore. The
centers would have allowed users to exchange used needles for clean ones,
along with providing HIV and hepatitis testing and disease counseling. 

The three supervisors also refused to back a state bill that would allow
pharmacists to sell up to 30 needles to a person without a prescription. 

Senate Bill 774, authored by John Vasconcellos of Santa Jose, was passed
last week by the state Senate and is being considered by the Assembly. 

"Are you allowing a licensed pharmacist to facilitate illegal drug use?"
Tavaglione asked Feldman, who was asking for the board to support the bill. 

The issue ultimately became a sort of proxy conflict over whether the
nation's war on drugs has been effective. 

"In my opinion, the war on drugs is a failure," Feldman said, adding that he
thinks all the war on drugs does is make drug barons rich while not
addressing the root of the problem. 

Supervisor Roy Wilson from the Coachella Valley, who was the only supervisor
to indicate his full support of the program, agreed. 

"Some laws are unenforceable. We saw that during Prohibition," Wilson said. 

Supervisor Bob Buster, who voted in favor of the proposal, said he would
have liked to have seen an experimental needle-exchange program tried in the
county before voting on it. 

He said prior committee hearings that were designed to begin examining the
issue were not attended by Doyle or Trask. 

"Everybody's making claims on the issue -- on both sides. Let's see if it
really works," he said.
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