OC Needle Exchange Plans to Open in September, as County Asks Court to Block It

Spencer Custodio, Voice of OC

Needles in a disposal container at the Santa Ana riverbed on Feb. 21, 2018, as officials cleared out a large homeless encampment.

The Orange County Needle Exchange Program does not plan to open until September, amid staunch opposition from the county, four cities and a county lawsuit asking a judge to block the program.

County officials, in a law suit filed July 3, said the program was “set to commence on August 6, 2018.” The supervisors’ chairman, Andrew Do, told reporters the county would seek a hearing Monday to issue an order blocking it from starting.

On Monday, the county’s top attorney, Leon Page, said the needle exchange’s attorney, Bob Solomon, “graciously agreed” to delay the program’s start until early September.

“Because of this delay, we no longer need to file an emergency ex parte application to obtain a temporary restraining order. We will instead file a regular, noticed Motion for Preliminary Injunction,” Page said in an email Monday to Voice of OC.

A court hearing on the county’s restraining order request could be set “later this month or early next month,” county spokesperson Molly Nichelson wrote in an email Monday.

Needle exchange representatives confirmed Monday they plan to start in September. But Dallas Augustine, a board member at the needle exchange, said claims of postponement are “inaccurate,” because the needle exchange already planned to start in September.

Solomon also said the operations were not postponed.

“They had always planned to start in September, before the lawsuit ever came up,” Solomon said in a phone interview Monday. The program sent out a tweet in the early afternoon Friday saying it would begin operating in September. 

Augustine said the decision to open in September was made last Wednesday, Aug. 1, when the program’s directors learned it had been authorized by the California Department of Public Health.

“By waiting for at least a month, we could notify the cities and county and ask them (again) for meetings to discuss our plans, receive feedback, and work collaboratively together,” Augustine said in an email Monday.

“It would also allow us to hold the community town halls we have been planning, but that require us to find locations, dates, and notify interested community members. The town halls are explicitly intended to allow us to meet with community members, hear their concerns, answer their questions, and dispel any myths surrounding harm reduction and our program,” Augustine wrote. “This has been our intention since we were notified about approval and remains our plan for moving forward.”

Asked what the county’s basis was for stating the program would start Aug. 6, Page, the county attorney, said it was based on a letter from state health officials saying the program is authorized to operate as of Monday.

The needle exchange was authorized by the state health department last Tuesday, July 30 to begin operating as soon as Monday, Aug. 6. To receive state approval, the program did not need authorization from the county or any cities where it operates.

Augustine said the needle exchange sent emails to the county Board of Supervisors and some cities after the July 3 meeting to inform them of the September start date.

“We received extremely limited response, unfortunately,” Augustine wrote in an email to Voice of OC, adding the supervisors never asked them about a planned start date.

“If we can get a restraining order, we can stop it from starting,” Do said Friday.

Augustine said “the emergency meeting was a surprise to us and we were not invited to attend or alerted about it. We did nothing to give the impression we ever intended to operate on (Monday),”

About two hours after the supervisors’ July 3 vote, the needle exchange program posted a Twitter statement saying, “Though certified to begin next week, we’ll be waiting until September to begin operating so that we can continue working with local representatives to make the program most effective in each respective city. We will continue as planned and look forward to serving our community.”

The needle exchange aims to provide clean syringe needles to individuals, in exchange for their used or dirty ones, to prevent the transmission of disease and infection among people who inject drugs.

County and city officials said their problem with the needle exchange lies in dangerous needles littering local communities, and government making it okay to use illegal drugs.

Sharing or reusing needles and syringes increases the chance of transmitting HIV, viral hepatitis and other blood borne infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Syringes with detachable needles can pose a greater risk because they can retain more blood after they are used.

The California Department of Public Health has identified Orange County as one of the most vulnerable in the state to the rapid spread of disease and infection through injection drug use.

OC saw a 201-percent increase in cases of chronic Hepatitis C from 2011 to 2015, according to the state health department. The rate of newly-diagnosed HIV cases increased by 24 percent from 2012 to 2016.

When visiting one of the needle exchange program’s sites, individuals can dispose of needles in containers and get clean supplies, according to the Orange County Needle Exchange Program’s website. The program will provide as many syringes as they dispose of, plus 20 additional needles. The website says volunteers cap the total number of syringes that any single person can receive at 200.

The supervisors were joined in their opposition to the needle exchange by the cities where the state authorized it to operate: Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Orange and Santa Ana.

Orange and Costa Mesa’s city councils have voted to join the county in seeking to block the needle exchange in court.

The program had operated in those cities under a previous authorization by the state health department in February 2016, said department spokeswoman Theresa Mier in an email.

In January, the needle exchange was shut down after Santa Ana refused to renew the program’s permit over claims of extensive needle litter in areas across the city, including the Santa Ana Public Library.

“This isn’t just about a needle exchange,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer at the Friday supervisors’ meeting. “It’s about the distribution of the ability to ingest illegal substances with state sanctions.”

Spitzer cited statistics showing the county is seeing a rise in violent crime rates, including rape, but did not explain how the statistics were related to injection drug use.

“Rape is up 24 percent in our county,” he said. “We’re losing our neighborhoods. We’re losing our county. We’re losing our communities.”

Supervisor Shawn Nelson called the needle exchange “a lie” at the meeting, while expressing doubt the the county would succeed in blocking the program due to California’s laws.

“All common sense seems to have left the building a long time ago,” he said, referring to the state.

Mahan Naeim, a member of the needle exchange’s steering committee, said he’s unsure how the pending litigation will affect preparations for the program to start in September.

“I don’t think any of us have a clear-cut idea of how the next month is going to unfold,” he said in a phone interview. “We have never been sued before.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or follow him on Twitter @photherecord.