San Diego Council Committee Approves Needle-Exchange Program
The San Diego City Council's Public Safety & Neighborhood Services Committee on Wednesday voted 3-2 in support of a one-year pilot needle-exchange program, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. The proposal now moves to the full City Council for review. The program, recommended by the Clean Syringe Exchange Program Task Force, aims to curb the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other bloodborne diseases by distributing clean syringes in communities with high rates of drug-related arrests or STDs, including HIV. The operation would be privately funded and kept at least eight blocks from schools and other areas where children gather, council member Ralph Inzunza said (Huard, San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/11). Drug users who use the needle exchange would receive identification cards to show program participation and prevent arrest by police for possession of drug paraphernalia. They would also be offered counseling and referred to drug treatment centers. The Alliance Healthcare Foundation will cover the estimated $340,000 cost of the program, which would be evaluated after one year to determine its effectiveness in reducing disease rates. In October 2000, the City Council declared a public health emergency, the first step required by state law before initiating a needle-exchange program, and appointed a task force composed of physicians, health care workers and city officials to work on the issue. A majority of the nine-member council appears to support the program, but Mayor Dick Murphy opposes it, saying he believes it "encourages drug use" and "drug use encourages other crime" (Huard, San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/10).
Task Force Chair Notes Support of Program
Chris Mathews, director of the Owen Clinic at the University of California-San Diego and chair of the council task force, writes in a San Diego Union-Tribune op-ed that "injection drug abuse, the major mode of transmission of [hepatitis C virus], is not something we can or should support. But it is a fact of life, and approximately 25,000 to 28,000 injection drug users reside in San Diego County." A clean syringe program is a "key component of harm reduction," Mathews says, adding, "We need to break the link between injection drug abuse and the transmission of preventable diseases." He notes that the U.S. Surgeon General's review of scientific studies on the programs concluded that "syringe exchange programs as part of a comprehensive HIV prevention strategy are an effective public health intervention that reduces the transmission of HIV and do not encourage the use of illegal drugs." Mathews says that if the council adopts the measure, "we will begin to move beyond an understandable concern about sending mixed messages to recognizing the central moral facts of the case," concluding that "syringe exchange programs save lives and bring addicts into treatment" (Mathews, San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/11).