Pubdate: Tue, 28 Dec 2004
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2004 The Sacramento Bee
Author: John Hill, Bee Capitol Bureau
Bookmark: (Hepatitis)
Note: Note: Does not publish letters from outside its circulation area.


Participation Is Voluntary For Cities, Counties

A new law that goes into effect Saturday will allow pharmacists to
sell syringes to intravenous drug users without a prescription - but
don't expect to see specials on needles at the local pharmacy anytime

Cities and counties must elect to take part in the five-year
demonstration project designed to cut down transmission rates of HIV,
hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases.

Once local governments commit, it's up to individual pharmacists to
choose whether they will take part.

Some urban jurisdictions are already working toward getting the
program started, but even they will not be ready by Saturday.

In Sacramento County, a group convened by county Health Officer
Glennah Trochet has met twice to talk about the details. Trochet would
like the county to take part, but wants to get the support of others
with an interest in the program, such as law enforcement officials,
said Toni Moore, alcohol and drug administrator for the county.

If the group reaches a consensus, it would present a proposal to the
Board of Supervisors.

Backers of the new law hope cities will take the lead, paving the way
for rural counties that also have intravenous drug use problems, said
Glenn Backes, national health policy director for the Drug Policy
Alliance, a backer of the law.

The program could also get a boost if major chains encourage their
pharmacists to participate, as they have in other states, Backes said.
The participation of the chains makes selling needles to IV drug users
seem more mainstream, so that "no one has to be a pioneer," he said.

Jody Cook, a spokeswoman for Rite Aid, said the drugstore chain has
not yet been contacted by California counties or cities.

"Once that happens, we would intend to participate," she

At South Sacramento Pharmacy on Franklin Boulevard, pharmacist Frank
Cable has already fielded questions from customers about when they
might be able to buy needles without a prescription.

"A couple people have asked about it," he said. "Some come in and want
to do it already." That's surprising, considering that most IV drug
users probably don't follow the progress of bills through the
Legislature, he said.

He suspects that news about the program has spread by word of mouth
through the subculture of IV drug users.

Cable, a supporter of the needle law, got his pharmacy degree in Iowa,
and ended up in Sacramento during a two-year stint in the Army. He
went to work at South Sacramento Pharmacy in 1969, and bought it four
years later. Today, his office features a clock whose hands point to
pills instead of numbers, and a vintage pack of cigarettes that were
once advertised as a treatment for asthma.

Cable believes there could be a fair amount of demand for clean
syringes in his neighborhood, near the corner of Franklin Boulevard
and Fruitridge Road. A pack of 10 needles costs about $3.50.

He doesn't expect neighbors to object to his participation. At the
same time, however, "I'm not going to hang a sign in the front of the
store" hawking needles to IV drug users, he said.

Similar needle bills were vetoed twice by former Gov. Gray

But when SB 1159 by Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara, made its
way this fall to the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the
Republican bucked opposition from public safety organizations and
social conservatives to sign it.

Opponents said the bill represented a tacit approval of illegal drug
use and would lead to a proliferation of dirty needles in public
places such as parks.

The law allows cities and counties to authorize pharmacies within
their borders to sell as many as 10 syringes to adults without
prescriptions. It will expire in 2010 unless the Legislature and the
governor decide to continue it.

Pharmacists who choose to take part are registered by their local
governments and must agree to educate customers on drug treatment and
safe disposal of syringes. Another provision of the law changes the
definition of illegal drug paraphernalia to exclude containers that
hold needles. That provision, intended to encourage safe handling of
syringes, does not sunset like the others in 2010.

Supporters of the law say it will reduce deaths from HIV and other
diseases, pointing out that 26,000 Californians have contracted AIDS
from sharing dirty syringes. They claim that, contrary to the concerns
of public safety groups, the law will result in fewer accidental
needle pricks, not more.

In other states that have passed similar laws, "law enforcement comes
around fast," Backes said.

Pharmacies don't get floods of drug users seeking needles, he said,
just a few a week. And studies elsewhere have not found increases in
discarded needles, Backes said. That's because the motive for throwing
away needles - that it's illegal to possess them - is removed.

Making it even more unlikely that dirty needles will proliferate,
Backes said, the new California law makes it a crime to throw away a
needle in a park or other public place.

Says Cable, the south Sacramento pharmacist, "I think it's a needed
public health policy."
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