Some California Needle-Exchange Programs Face Interference From State, Local Police, Report Says
Some locally approved needle-exchange programs in California are facing "routin[e]" interference from police, according to a Human Rights Watch report released yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reports (Hymon, Los Angeles Times, 9/10). The 61-page report, "Injecting Reason: Human Rights and HIV Prevention for Injection Drug Users," is based on a two-week field visit to California in January and February 2003. HRW researchers visited seven California counties -- San Francisco, Alameda, Sacramento, Lake, Mendocino, San Diego and Los Angeles -- each of which has a "distinct approach to the regulation of syringes," according to the report. Researchers also conducted interviews with people in Santa Cruz and Marin counties. Researchers interviewed 67 injection drug users, as well as "dozens" of outreach workers, needle-exchange experts, governmental and nongovernmental experts on drug paraphernalia laws and law enforcement officials, according to the report (HRW, "Injecting Reason: Human Rights and HIV Prevention for Injection Drug Users," 9/9). HRW researchers found that some law enforcement authorities "often arrest or hassle patrons" of needle-exchange programs that have been approved by local governments under state law, the Times reports. Under current state law, needle-exchange programs are legal, but possession of drug paraphernalia -- including syringes -- and the purchase of syringes from a pharmacy without a prescription remains illegal (Los Angeles Times, 9/10). Only five states -- California, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania -- require a prescription to buy needles (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 7/29).
HRW researcher Jonathan Cohen, who wrote the report, said, "The hypocrisy in California law, the discrepancy between the need for needle exchange and the restrictions on their use, is striking" (Leff, Associated Press, 9/9). He added, "Needle exchange is an accepted form of health care, and the government is preventing people from getting to it. No one should have to choose between becoming HIV-positive and going to jail" (HRW release, 9/9). John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Narcotic Officers' Association, disagreed with the HRW report's findings, saying, "I have never heard anyone on the advocacy side make that allegation. ... The assertion by the Human Rights Watch people that law enforcement engages in that kind of behavior is simply a lie" (Associated Press, 9/9). Jerry Davila, assistant AIDS coordinator for the city of Los Angeles, said, "We have received some complaints that there have been some isolated cases of police harassment, ... but I don't think it's a major problem right now." According to CDC figures, approximately 28% of new AIDS cases reported in the United States in 2002 could be linked to injection drug use, the Times reports (Los Angeles Times, 9/10).