A local substance abuse clinic will run a needle exchange program in Santa Ana with the state Department of Public Health’s approval, over objections from city officials who say it’ll endanger residents. 

“This needle exchange threatens the health and safety of our children, families and neighborhoods,” Mayor Valerie Amezcua said in a Monday news release. “I am greatly disappointed that the state health department would override our local government authority to protect our community.”

City officials criticized the Harm Reduction Institute’s program, saying it produces more dirty needles in the streets than it prevents. 

But Harm Reduction Institute Executive Director Carol Newark argued otherwise. 

“Generally speaking, you see less littered syringes because the program is able to operate every day and kind of do its job,” Newark said in a Wednesday phone interview.

She said they’ll be able to collect needles daily since the team is going “to be in the community every day for people who are unhoused and get their needles and give them new ones two days a week and be available to them to dispose of needles 5 days a week.” 

Newark said when they issue needles, they also collect used ones. 

Advocates for homeless people – who experience high rates of substance abuse – say such programs pave the way to reducing drug abuse, and saving people’s lives in the process.

“In the big picture, the evidence behind harm reduction as a way to address substance abuse disorder is clear,” said attorney Brooke Weitzman in a Wednesday phone interview. “There seems to be pretty consistent agreement among health professionals that harm reduction is a path to addressing substance abuse disorders.” 

Newark also said the Harm Reduction Institute does more than just needle exchanges. 

“There are a lot of barriers to get into treatment and we try to break those down for people – that includes making sure people have health insurance or getting appointments at the methadone clinic,” she said.

City Manager Christine Ridge and Police Chief David Valentin objected to the program In a May letter to the California Department of Public Health.

“​​Between 2016 and 2018, the Orange County Needle Exchange Program (OCNEP) operated in the Civic Center area in Santa Ana. The effects of OCNEP on the community were dire,” reads the letter.  

Ridge and Valentin said the program resulted in “thousands of used hypodermic needles being discarded in or on the adjacent public buildings, libraries, streets, sidewalks, parks, and waterways both in Santa Ana and elsewhere in Orange County, as documented by Santa Ana in a letter to OCNEP dated December 6, 2017.” 

Newark said some of those claims are a bit skewed because when city officials clear homeless encampments, they find syringes before people have had a chance to dispose of them in a needle exchange program. 

She also said the new program will have tighter safeguards. 

“You have to have a cellphone. So if we go out and we can’t find someone we gave needles to two days ago, we can contact them and find out where they’re at,” Newark said. 

The May letter also stated a previous needle exchange program resulted in lawsuits. 

“The County and other local cities and public entities prevailed in litigation against CDPH over this action,” reads the letter signed by Ridge and Valentin. 

“In addition to the effects on the general public, OCNEP’s operation affected employee relations within City government. Santa Ana had to field numerous inquiries and complaints from City employees and their unions regarding the continued threat of needle sticks from improperly discarded syringes,” states the letter. 

It’s unclear if city officials are considering a lawsuit. Mayor Amezcua didn’t return messages seeking comment. 

“To address concerns raised by the City and Orange County Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, the state public health department said it will fund HRI to conduct syringe litter clean-ups to decrease the incidents of syringe litter in public spaces and increase community engagement and education on proper syringe disposal,” reads the city’s Monday news release.

California Department of Public Health officials say the Harm Reduction Institute will be responsible for discarded needles. 

“Scan for and clean up syringe litter anywhere in Santa Ana, regardless of the original provider of the syringe (pharmacy, other syringe service provider, mail order provider),” state officials said in a Wednesday email. 

Officials also said the institute is supposed to “conduct regular neighborhood sweeps (in addition to the two days per week that they will provide and collect syringes).” 

For years, Santa Ana officials have tried to get other cities to open homeless shelters and drug treatment centers to alleviate what they say is an unfair burden to their city. 

Most recently, some city council members are pushing to crack down on public intoxication throughout the city. 

[Read: Santa Ana Moves to Crack Down on Public Intoxication, People Asleep on Sidewalks]

In the end, Newark said, programs like the needle exchange help people build trust with drug treatment centers, which helps get them into programs. 

“We have four of our staff members involved in case management, several of them are peer support staff as well – people who have lived experience and are able to share and connect with their lived experience,” she said. 

Newark said the Harm Reduction Institute has been working with some people since 2020 in an effort to get them rehabilitated and into housing. 

“Now that they’re housed, we’re working with them to make sure they keep their housing,” she said. “So we’re providing a lot of services already.”

Spencer Custodio is the civic editor. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.


Since you’ve made it this far,

You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford, but it’s not free to produce. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.