Needle Exchange Program Delayed in OC

SANTA ANA (CNS) - A legal showdown expected today over an Orange County needle exchange program was averted when the nonprofit spearheading it put off implementation of the program for a month.

Orange County officials filed a lawsuit Friday challenging the program and were girding to seek a temporary restraining order in court Monday, but that proved unnecessary when the Orange County Needle Exchange Program decided to put off the planned implementation of the program for another 30 days.

The lawsuit did not motivate the delay, said Mahan Naeim, who is on the program's steering committee.

"We decided on our own accord that it was best to wait until the first week of September” to better coordinate the program with local officials, Naeim told City News Service.

The California Department of Public Health, Office of AIDS, which authorized the program, advised more coordination with local authorities on the disposal of used needles. The program was operated from 2016 through January 2018 in the Santa Ana Civic Center area, where there was a large encampment of transients.

Orange County officials were concerned there would be a repeat of the proliferation of discarded syringes in the area with a revival of the program in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange.

City Council members in Orange on Monday morning voted to file a lawsuit against the program and the state to halt a needle exchange in their city.

Costa Mesa City Council members on Friday voted to join the county's lawsuit.

Orange County Board chairman Andrew Do told City News Service that the county will now focus on seeking an injunction to challenge the state's process for authorizing the program. There is concern the state could authorize another program under the same criteria, which officials believe is flawed.

But Naeim said the nonprofit wants to work with the local officials.

"We've always tried to maintain open communication with city officials and law enforcement,” Naeim said. ``We've reached out to law enforcement and city officials and we are continuing to do so.”

Do said he is planning to meet with the nonprofit's leaders sometime this week.

But Naeim said there has been a lot of ``misinformation” about the program, particularly claims that participants get 20 needles for every one they turn in. That's true if someone brings in a single syringe, but, he added, ``If you bring in 100, you get 120 needles, if you bring in 200 you get 200 and if you bring in 500 you get 200.”

The program caps out a daily distribution at 200.

Naeim said from Oct. 7 to Jan. 13 the average number of needles collected was 29,215 a day and the number distributed was 26,690.

On Dec. 16, the program saw 249 clients who turned in 30,122 needles and the nonprofit doled out 30,333 needles, Naeim said.

"That's absolutely nowhere near 20 times,” Naeim said.

The program is designed to ``incentivize” participants into bringing in their needles so they can be properly disposed of, he said.

The program was not about just handing out clean syringes to help drug addicts avoid getting communicable diseases such as hepatitis or AIDS, Naeim said. The nonprofit also provided legal and drug counseling services, he added.

"We heard routinely from our clients that this was the one time of the week when individuals asked them how they were doing and really cared about the answer,” he said. ``Opioid addiction can be a really scary and dark place and providing a sense of community and through that support we have seen individuals overcome their addictions.”

Do wasn't sold on the argument, noting that officials gathered 14,000 used needles in the Santa Ana riverbed area before it was cleared of a large encampment of homeless people.

"That was a three-quarter of a mile stretch,” Do said. ``It doesn't seem to support their claim it's a wash.”

Naeim noted, however, that the nonprofit wasn't able to do its program in the riverbed in the weeks leading up to the dispersal of the encampment.

Do wasn't sold on the program's ability to help addicts overcome their habit.

"What I hear from the program is basically wishful thinking,” Do said. ``And I find it ironic they would provide an entire drug-cooking kit and then somehow that's the way to get them off drugs.”

Photo: Getty Images

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