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Busted for Handing Out Clean Needles? Courageous Activists Pushed for Safe Access Despite Jail Time Risks

Two passionate drug reformers are looking at serious jail time for trying to save lives.

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Given the knowledge base about the effectiveness of exchanges and the evident human need for them in Modesto, needle exchange advocates were not content to simply roll over and die. Instead, they created an unauthorized needle exchange in the city's Mono Park, also known as needle park by residents because of the used needles littering the ground there. The program was publicized and went along on a low-level basis without a hitch until April, when, after an elaborate undercover sting, police swooped down and arrested the exchange volunteers.

Kristi Tribuzio just happened to be volunteering with the needle exchange the day the bust went down. Now, she's one of the defendants. "There was a direct need for this, and when I found out there was an existing exchange -- I saw a flyer on a telephone pole -- I asked how is this happening?" she said. "I got involved; I was just going out there for the people. An undercover cop came up and did an exchange, and then, a little later eight to 10 undercover officers drove up with a drug dog and arrested us. It was pretty harsh and crazy," she recalled.

"Looking back, Brian and I think it was maybe naive of us to just go out there and do something that was helping people in line with other syringe exchange programs," said Tribuzio. "We didn't understand what the consequences could be."

Now, she and Robinson face up to a year in jail for violating the paraphernalia law. For Tribuzio, there were other consequences, including the loss of her contract position with the Stanislaus County drug and alcohol education and prevention program. "I was laid off two days after I was arrested. Because I was a contract worker, they didn't need a reason to fire me, and no official reason was given. Ironically, my employer supports needle exchange," she said. "Maybe that's why they laid me off instead of firing me for cause. Now, at least, I can get unemployment."

Tribuzio had previously worked as a substitute teacher, but she can't do that now, either. "I'm getting an MA in education, and I have a teaching credential, but my credential is now suspended," she said. "Imagine, a teacher in San Francisco could be doing just what I did, and there would be no problem."

That's because needle exchanges have been authorized by the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors, just as they have in most large California cities. But in more conservative locales, like the Central Valley, the fight is more difficult, and therein lies the problem -- and the solution -- said one prominent harm reductionist.

"What we need is to get legislation authorizing syringe exchanges on a statewide level rather than our current system, which requires that they be authorized by local authorities," said Hilary McQuie, Oakland-based Western director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "Requiring local authorization means we have to deal with 54 jurisdictions instead of just one, and the politics makes it really difficult in conservative places like Fresno or Modesto. It will be really difficult to get syringe exchange approved in Modesto without a statewide mandate," she said.

Short of that, needle exchange advocates need to carefully lay the groundwork beforehand, she said. In that respect, the Modesto needle exchange perhaps suffered from political naivete. "The effort with the grand jury in Modesto was done in good faith, but the grand jury finding required a response from the Board of Supervisors within three months," she noted. "They hadn't really lined up their support with the Board, and the Board ended up voting against it. That was problematic."

 
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