Pubdate: Mon, 13 Sep 2004
Source: Fresno Bee, The (CA)
Copyright: 2004 The Fresno Bee
Author: Jennifer M. Fitzenberger, Bee Capitol Bureau
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


SACRAMENTO -- Drug policy advocates are lobbying Gov. Schwarzenegger
to sign two bills that would make it easier to distribute clean
needles to addicts.

Former Gov. Gray Davis signed a law in 1999 allowing cities or
counties to establish legal needle exchange programs -- in which
addicts turn in dirty needles for new ones -- by declaration of
emergency. But that declaration must be reconsidered every two to
three weeks.

Assembly Bill 2871 by Assembly Member Patty Berg, approved by the
Legislature last month, would allow local governments to establish
exchange programs with a one-time authorization.

Berg, D-Eureka, says the current requirement is a "bureaucratic
nightmare" that keeps some local governments from creating programs.


/34343761626530313431333865313730UKP1893197939) Click Me!
ml/34343761626530313431333865313730?_RM_EMPTY_) Fourteen counties and
cities have legal needle exchange programs, and officials in several
others -- none in the central San Joaquin Valley -- indicated they
would take steps to create them if the bill becomes law, Berg says.
Fresno doesn't have a legal exchange program. The issue was brought
before the Fresno County Board of Supervisors at least once but never
was voted on, Supervisor Juan Arambula said.

Volunteers run an unofficial needle exchange program in

Senate Bill 1159 by Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara, would let
local governments authorize pharmacies to sell up to 10 sterile
syringes to an adult without a prescription. Currently, needles can be
sold to people who don't have a prescription only in a few
circumstances, such as to administer insulin.

The lobbying on behalf of the bills coincides with publication of a
study that, using 1998 data, estimates Fresno has the highest
per-capita use of injected drugs among 96 U.S. metropolitan areas.

The study, published this month in the Journal of Urban Health,
estimates that for every 10,000 people in Fresno, 173 are injecting

The Stockton-Lodi area was third, behind Baltimore; Bakersfield sixth;
and Sacramento 15th.

Officials with the National Development and Research Institutes Inc.
in New York City based their findings on several factors, including
the number of people who got HIV from injecting drugs and the number
of people who sought drug treatment.

The study's abstract notes that "[d]espite limitations in the accuracy
of these estimates, they can be used for ... assessing the extent of
service delivery to drug injectors."

Fresno County Health Officer Dr. Edward Moreno says the study shows
the Valley has a serious problem with people who inject drugs: "For
anybody that was doubting ... here's the evidence."

Adds Glenn Backes, health policy director for Drug Policy Alliance
Network, a supporter of the bills on Schwarzenegger's desk: "Perhaps
the knowledge that the Valley is in the midst of a crisis ... will
have the needed effect to establish good disease prevention policy."

Law-enforcement advocates say the legislation would deregulate an
already fragile method of creating legal needle exchange programs and
would soften the law on needle possession.

The Drug Policy Alliance Network "shouldn't be permitted to dress up
their agenda in the cloak of public health. What they're proposing is
not good public health policy," says John Lovell, a lobbyist who
represents narcotics officers and police chiefs in Sacramento.

But Samuel Friedman, the study's lead investigator, says getting clean
syringes into drug-infested communities slows the spread of HIV and
hepatitis C.

More than 1,800 Californians die of AIDS each year, and 1,500 new
infections occur through syringe sharing among intravenous drug users.
About 5,000 Californians become infected with hepatitis C in the same

"If [Schwarzenegger] cares about the people of California and their
health, he should sign that," Friedman says.

The governor hasn't taken a position on either bill. He has until
Sept. 30 to decide whether to sign or veto them.

Volunteers have operated an unofficial needle exchange program in
Fresno for 10 years. About 300 people -- many of them methamphetamine
users -- trade dirty needles for clean ones each week, says Jean
Rodriguez, who volunteers with the program.

The exchanges, which are privately funded and often held in parks, are
illegal. Police know about them but turn their heads, Rodriguez says.

"We need to be legalized and recognized for helping with this health
issue," she says.

But exchanges that are poorly managed or have little oversight can
turn into a public safety nightmare, Lovell says. "Needle exchange
programs are sited in the most fragile of neighborhoods. You have to
constantly monitor it to make sure you don't have public safety
problems. The Berg bill cavalierly ignores those issues."

Fresno police Sgt. Gregg Sanders says his department has had no
problems with the unofficial exchanges. Sanders would not say whether
the department approves of the exchanges, referring the issue to Chief
Jerry Dyer, who was unavailable.

Lovell also says there is no way to enforce the 10-syringe limit that
Vasconcellos' bill would allow.

Supporters have argued that allowing pharmacists more freedom to sell
syringes would help prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, saving
millions of dollars in health-care costs.

"They're both good bills," says Backes, adding that he is optimistic
Schwarzenegger will sign them. "I have a lot of respect for the
governor, and he has shown understanding."
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