The stars appear to be uniquely aligned for proponents of San Diego's emergency needle-exchange program, which allows intravenous drug users to swap used syringes for sterile ones.
For the first time in its five-year history, the program, which was placed on hold since last summer due to the objections of two City Council members, has the backing of the mayor. Additionally, a California law that streamlines the process to establish a permanent needle-exchange program took effect on Jan. 1.
So, then, why is San Diego's program still on hold?
Adrian Kwiatkowski, a lobbyist who advocates in favor of needle exchange, told CityBeat Monday that he had been waiting for new City Council members representing Districts 2 and 8 to take office and for approval from the California Department of Health Services. Now, with the new members sworn in and state approval secured, he said he's been trying to set up a briefing with Mayor Jerry Sanders for the past three weeks, but his calls haven't been returned.
Kwiatkowski and other needle-exchange proponents say there's good reason for a sense of urgency.
"While the wheels of government are sloshing along, these needles continue to be on the streets, and we continue to risk people being infected with HIV and Hepatitis C," said Kwiatkowski.
Jim Dunford, the city's emergency medical services director and the chair of the city's syringe-exchange program facilitation committee, said delays might cost lives.
"Every week we can gain is an important week to prevent somebody from developing a disease that could have life-threatening implications," he said.
Figures provided by Kwiatkowski show the program provided roughly 2,500 clean syringes citywide in the week before it was placed on hold.
According to the new state law, "The rapidly spreading AIDS epidemic and the more recent spread of blood-borne hepatitis, pose an unprecedented public health risk in California, and threaten, in one way or another, the life and health of every Californian." Moreover, "scientific data from needle-exchange programs in the United States and Europe have shown that the exchange of used hypodermic needles and syringes... can curtail the spread of HIV infection among the intravenous drug user population."
Contacted by CityBeat Monday, Fred Sainz, Sanders' spokesperson, said the mayor, who supported needle exchange as CEO of the United Way and professed his support during his candidacy, still "believes that clean-needle exchange [is] in the best public health interests of our community.
"We will schedule that meeting in the next few days," Sainz said. "The issue is simply one of time. The priorities have been finances."
Later that same afternoon, Kwiatkowski reported that the mayor's staff had contacted him to schedule a preliminary meeting for Friday and were in the process of planning a meeting between the mayor and needle-exchange proponents sometime after Feb. 12.
After the mayor is briefed, the earliest the issue could be brought to the City Council is Feb. 21, due to a weeklong legislative recess. Kwiatkowski said he believes needle exchange has the five votes it needs to secure approval, as City Councilmembers Donna Frye, Scott Peters, Toni Atkins and Tony Young have historically supported the program and newly sworn-in Ben Hueso indicated his support during his campaign.
City Councilmembers Jim Madaffer and Brian Maienschein have opposed the program-they were able to kill it when the city's governing body had only six members. Newbie Kevin Faulconer didn't respond to calls seeking clarification of his stance on the issue.
During its previous incarnation as a pilot program, the needle exchange required the City Council to declare a related state of emergency every two to three weeks. Under the new state law, it needs only to approve the program once.While some opposition to establishing a permanent needle-exchange program is expected, other logistical hurdles remain. The City Attorney's office is currently vetting a provision in the state law that requires the city's top health official to give an annual program briefing to the City Council. It remains unclear whether Dunford can legally fulfill that duty. Because the city lacks such a health official, it traditionally relies on the county when it comes to issues of public health.