Busted for Handing Out Clean Needles? Courageous Activists Pushed for Safe Access Despite Jail Time Risks
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Hit hard by a double whammy of drought and economic slowdown, California's Central Valley has become a hotbed of methamphetamine and other injection drug use. Now, the dusty town of Modesto, in Stanislaus County, has become a focal point in the statewide and nationwide battle over how to help injection drug users. Last week, two volunteers at an unsanctioned needle exchange were in court in Modesto hoping to reach a plea bargain after they were arrested in April for handing out syringes. Now known as the Mono Park 2, they're looking at serious jail time for trying to save lives.
The deal was supposed to be that Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager would drop drug paraphernalia possession charges against exchange volunteers Kristy Tribuzio and Brian Robinson if they agreed to quit handing out needles until there was a legal program in place. But that didn't happen. Instead, at the last minute, the DA rejected the plea deal. Another hearing is set for November 9. If the DA and defense attorneys cannot reach agreement then, the case will go to trial.
The case has its genesis in longstanding efforts to win official approval for a needle exchange in Modesto. California law allows for needle exchanges, but only as a local option. The county board of supervisors must declare a health emergency in order for needle exchanges to operate legally.
In a 2008 report, Containing the Emerging Threat of Hepatitis through a Syringe Exchange Program (begins on page 22), the Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury recommended the county authorize syringe exchanges and implement them either directly or through a community based contractor. The effort also had the support of county public health officials, including Public Health Department, the Advisory Board for Substance Abuse Programs, the Local AIDS Advisory Implementation Group, and the Hepatitis C Task Force, who cited a high incidence of Hepatitis C. They cited research indicating that needle exchanges reduced the spread of blood-borne diseases, brought injection drug users into contact with public health workers, and did not result in increases in drug use.
But despite the input from the public health community and the grand jury report, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors a year ago voted unanimously against allowing needle exchanges. In so doing, they heeded their own prejudices and those of law enforcement over science-based policies and the advice of the public health community.
County Sheriff Adam Christianson and DA Fladager both spoke out against needle exchanges, saying they would enable drug users to continue their addiction. Fladager said needle exchanges sent the wrong message to young people and encouraged them to think the county would take care of them if they become addicted.
"All of the challenges we are faced with in Stanislaus County, the gangs, methamphetamine, crimes, all have elements of drug addiction," Christianson said. "A syringe exchange program enables people to continue with their drug addiction."
Noting that Hep C was not a big issue for the county because most patients are covered by insurance, Supervisor Bill O'Brien also objected on bizarre moral grounds. "Then there's the human issue. Giving a drug user a clean needle is not the best thing for him. Illegal drug use has a risk, and making it safer promotes it," he said.
Supervisor Jim DeMartini thanked the grand jury for the report, but then dismissively added, "Like many well-intentioned programs that don't work out, this will never work out and deliver the benefits promised."
Too bad the sheriff, the DA, and the county board don't agree with the nation's drug czar. "Needle exchange programs have been proven to reduce the transmission of blood-borne diseases," Gil Kerlikowske told Congress during confirmation hearings earlier this year. "A number of studies conducted in the US have shown needle exchange programs do not increase drug use. I understand that research has shown these programs, when implemented in the context of a comprehensive program that offers other services such as referral to counseling, healthcare, drug treatment, HIV/AIDS prevention, counseling and testing, are effective at connecting addicted users to drug treatment."