Pubdate: Fri, 27 Aug 1999
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Section: Front Page
Copyright: 1999 Mercury Center
Author: Lisa M. Krieger, Hallye Jordan, Mercury News Staff Writers


With Public On Their Side, Health Workers Hope Davis OKs Bill

If legislation now awaiting Gov. Gray Davis' signature becomes law, the veil
of secrecy that surrounds Santa Clara County's illegal needle exchange
program would be lifted.

The issue has been a sticky one in California. Earlier efforts to legalize
needle exchanges to thwart the spread of HIV and hepatitis C among
intravenous drug users were vetoed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson. And a spokesman
for Davis said the governor also has serious reservations.

The current underground program only reaches about a third of Santa Clara
County's estimated 15,000 drug addicts, health officials say, saying that
285 county residents have died from AIDS due to contaminated needles.

Local medical authorities are among those urging Davis to sign the legislation.

``I believe it is good public health policy,'' said Dr. Martin
46enstersheib, director of the Santa Clara County Department of Health.
``All science shows that it works. The law is lagging behind the policy.''

The county was forced to abandon its official needle exchange program three
years ago, when then-Attorney Gen. Dan Lungren threatened the supervisors
with lawsuits or jail. The current program operates with tacit approval from
county officials and San Jose police.

The bill would change the law to legalize possessing and using hypodermic
needles or syringes without a doctor's prescription. More than a dozen other
states have passed similar legislation.

The governor has 12 days to sign or veto the measure, AB 518 by
Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni, D-San Rafael.

Davis press secretary Michael Bustamante said the governor has serious
concerns about the ``state sanctioning'' such programs and that Davis
believes the issue is one local governments, rather than the state, should
grapple with.

When asked how communities could implement the programs if the state won't
authorize them, Bustamante only would repeat that ``the state shouldn't be
in the business of sanctioning these programs.''

But supporters argue the bill wouldn't do that: There are no mandates, no
state funding; communities simply would be free to implement programs in
consultation with local law enforcement and public health officials.

Seen as local issue

``We absolutely agree this is a local issue,'' said Fred Dillon, San
46rancisco AIDS Foundation state policy director. ``This bill is about
allowing localities to implement these programs if they choose to. . . . So
we hope that wouldn't be used as an excuse to veto the bill.''

The bill creates an awkward situation for Davis. Not only has he urged
handling the issue at the local level -- which supporters of the bill say it
will do -- he is facing increasing pressure from key supporters.

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown has called on him to sign the bill, as have
21 congressional Democrats from California. And on Tuesday, the sheriffs of
two of the most populated counties in the state -- San Francisco and Los
Angeles -- weighed in, arguing needle exchange programs reduce HIV
infections without increasing drug use.

Other law enforcement groups oppose the bill. ``The obvious problem with the
bill is this is a horrible mixed message that we are sending,'' said John
Lovell, lobbyist for the police chiefs, peace and narcotic officers'

``On one hand we are engaged in drug enforcement and drug education. On the
other hand, we are providing the instrumentalities of illegal drug use. That
really undercuts the credibility of enforcement and education.''

Banking on Davis' penchant for gauging the political climate before making
decisions, supporters of the bill armed themselves with a Field Institute
poll commissioned by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation that showed
clean-needle programs are overwhelmingly supported by Californians of all
ideological and political stripes.

Taken last week, the poll showed a whopping 69.2 percent of respondents
favor such programs as a way to prevent the spread of HIV infections. Even
half of those who identified themselves as strongly and moderately
conservative support the programs.

Support also cut across geographical lines that are often used as political
barometers. Not surprisingly, 82.9 percent of Bay Area residents and 71.6
percent of Los Angeles residents favored the programs. But even in the
conservative Central Valley, 65.1 percent were in favor.

No longer divisive

``For those for whom science is not enough, this polling data gives really
clear evidence that this is not a politically divisive issue in the state of
California,'' said Regina AragF3n, San Francisco AIDS Foundation deputy
director for public policy. ``There is enough political cover in this poll
for any elected official who wants to do the right thing by science and by
public health.''

If the bill is signed by Davis, Santa Clara County hopes to expand the
underground program, run by volunteers on a $40,000-a-year budget at three
undisclosed sites in San Jose.

Additional sites could be created in San Jose as well as other parts of the
county, such as Gilroy, Morgan Hill and San Martin, said Fenstershieb. The
budget would be expanded two-to threefold and full-time staffers could be
hired, he said.

Santa Clara County's is not the only surreptitious program operating in the
Bay Area; a similar one also distributes needles in San Mateo County from
various Redwood City parking lots.

Needle exchange programs offer a place where drug addicts can get sterile
syringes for free, so they do not share syringes and transmit blood-borne
diseases. The programs also provide instruction in the use of condoms and
other safer-sex measures and refer drug users to drug-abuse treatment
programs and public health clinics.

Nationwide, needle exchange programs are broadening their activities and
spreading swiftly, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention. There are about 110 programs across the country.

San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and Los Angeles have adopted ordinances,
renewed every two weeks, which declare a state of ``health emergency'' to
allow needle-exchange programs in their jurisdiction.

But many communities, including Santa Clara County, did not declare a health
emergency due to threats from former Attorney General Lungren's office.
``We've had the support of local law enforcement officials,'' said
46enstersheib, ``but the county got out of the business when (former)
Attorney General Lungren threatened us.''

Santa Clara County's needle exchange program is run by ARIS, the AIDS
Resources and Information Service. Four times a week, ARIS and county health
workers go to the streets to reach IV drug users. Financed by private
donations, the program distributed more than 90,000 syringes to injection
drug users last year.

ARIS parks a van at a designated location and workers pass out clean
needles, surgical wipes, bleach and the phone numbers and addresses for drug
and medical programs, shelters and food banks.

Mercury News Staff Writer John Hubner contributed to this report.

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at  or (408) 920-5565; contact
Hallye Jordan at  or (916) 441-4601.

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