Orange County Seeks Court Order Blocking Needle Exchange

The Orange County Board of Supervisors. From left: Michelle Steel, Shawn Nelson, Todd Spitzer, Lisa Bartlett, and Andrew Do. (Photos by Nick Gerda and Katlin Washburn)

Orange County is seeking an emergency court order blocking Monday’s re-opening of a state-authorized needle exchange program.

County counsel Leon Page said in an email a complaint was filed in San Diego County Superior Court Friday, the same day the supervisors directed the action in a unanimous 5-0 vote.

“Sacramento, once again, fell deaf to our local concerns, so the [Orange County Needle Exchange Program] was authorized despite widespread local opposition,” said supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do during a special supervisors’ meeting Friday. He said the program would be “harmful to the public.”

The needle exchange is scheduled to start operating again on Monday after it received approval from state health officials.

City and county officials cited needles littering local communities, including the Santa Ana library, as a danger to public safety.

“If we can get a restraining order, we can stop it from starting,” said Do. City council members from Costa Mesa and Orange expressed interest Friday in joining the county’s suit, and county officials said they plan to collaborate with cities interested in joining.

The county is suing both the state health department and the needle exchange program, according to the complaint.

The county will ask for a hearing Monday to issue the restraining order, Do told reporters after the meeting.

The request will be on an “ex parte” basis, Do told reporters – meaning the county would request the judge issue a restraining order without hearing from the defendants.

Do told reporters the county’s legal action would be filed in San Diego County Superior Court, because the emergency request had to be filed in a county where the state Attorney General has an office.

Supervisors had scheduled the legal discussion and action in closed session, which is their typical practice. But with TV cameras and newspaper reporters watching from the audience, supervisors opted not to take action behind closed doors and instead voted publicly to initiate the lawsuit and restraining order request.

The needle exchange was shut down in January when Santa Ana refused to renew the program’s permit.

The program 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 the problem lies in dangerous needles littering local communities, and government making it okay to use illegal drugs.

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

Facing the TV news cameras in the room, Spitzer held up a hand-written sign he said a woman gave him the day before at a Costa Mesa protest. The sign read in all caps: “MORE NEEDLES = MORE CRIME.”

Supervisor Todd Spitzer holds up a sign regarding the proposed needle exchange at the supervisors’ special meeting

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.”

State officials said there’s a public health need to provide clean needles.
“There is a public health need for these services due to the significant risk for transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C among people who inject drugs in Orange County,” said California Department of Public Health spokeswoman Theresa Mier in an emailed statement.

Sharing or reusing needles and syringes increases the chance of transmitting HIV, viral hepatitis and other blood borne infections, according to the 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 Department of Public Health has identified Orange County as one of the most vulnerable in California to the rapid spread of disease and infection through injection drug use.

The county saw a 201.2 percent increase in cases of chronic Hepatitis C from 2011 to 2015, according to the Department of Public Health. 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.

Elected officials from Anaheim, Orange, Santa Ana and Costa Mesa – as well as law enforcement leaders District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Orange Police Chief Tom Kisela – voiced support at the supervisors’ meeting for the lawsuit and objected to the needle exchange operating in those cities on a rotating basis.

Seated in the audience were two of the county’s top public health officials, Health Care Agency Director Richard Sanchez and Public Health Officer Eric Handler. Supervisors didn’t call on them to speak or ask them any questions.

Mahan Naeim, a member of the needle exchange’s steering committee, said in a Friday telephone interview they have been trying to communicate with law enforcement and city officials in the county in an attempt to minimize fears and concerns.

Naeim said the group is willing to discuss with law enforcement officials where they would prefer the needle exchange to operate.

“As far as we’re concerned, we don’t need any permit; but we would much rather do this in a collaborative way,” Naeim said. “We would prefer to collaborate and come to a mutual consensus as to where we would operate.”

Supervisor Shawn Nelson called the needle exchange “a lie” during discussion, adding he didn’t know how much success the county would have in pursuing legal action due to California’s laws.

“All common sense seems to have left the building a long time ago,” he said, referring to the state. Nelson brought up the statewide ban on single-use plastic bags and a proposed ban on plastic straws.

“You can’t have a straw. You can’t have a plastic bag. But, you know, a hypodermic needle? All bets are off. Go ahead,” Nelson said.

Do, the supervisors’ chairman, recalled a moment where he and U.S. District Judge David O. Carter were walking around the federal courthouse in Santa Ana when they found three needles that they didn’t know what to do with.

“I asked myself, if a county supervisor and a federal judge don’t know what to do with that situation, what chance does the public have?” Do said.

According to a June 25 letter to the state from the Santa Ana City Council, 14,000 needles were found along the Santa Ana River Trail during a cleanup effort early this year.

An estimated 7,500 needles were removed from public areas and an additional 50 were found along the Santiago Creek between January and June, after the needle exchange halted operations, according to the letter. An estimated 50 hypodermic needles were removed from Birch Park in Santa Ana during a cleanup, the letter states.

Naeim said the needle exchange has since set up a hotline for anyone to call to report needle sightings, and the program will conduct a sweep.

According to the authorization letter from the state health department, the proposed services performed by the needle exchange “will play a crucial public health role in the prevention of blood-borne diseases, as well as offering support and linkage to critical medical care and social services.”

Do called the language of the program’s proposal, “completely aspirational,” rather than mandating protections for the public.

“It says here, [the needle exchange] will strive to ensure that syringes we distribute are returned. We will monitor how effective our efforts are and will take additional steps if needed.’ This is not a fully baked program,” Do said.

“I want to correct the misperception that this board is not amenable to any suggestion, to any workable program,” Do said. “I believe that we will work with the nonprofit and the state if a more thoughtful proposal is made. One that would provide for the proper disposal of used needles.”

Naeim said one thing that routinely goes unnoticed by city officials is that by the end of their operations, the needle exchange was routinely collecting more needles than they were distributing.

“We were literally netting negative,” he said.

Responding to multiple supervisors’ claims that the needle exchange enables injection drug users, Naeim said, “A syringe is not an addictive substance. Heroin is an addictive substance, regardless of whether it’s injected or not. I don’t think syringes in any way enable drug use.”

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

Contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter @nicholasgerda.