A July 29 editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune accused operators of the city's needle-exchange program of breaking the law—continuing to “dispense clean needles to drug addicts in North Park and downtown” despite a July 18 vote by the City Council that, at least for now, put an end to the program. Program operators, however, insist needle exchange ceased immediately after the vote and the editorial's author failed to confirm that most basic fact.
State law allows public entities to maintain a needle-exchange program as long as there's good evidence that the use of dirty needles is causing a local health crisis, such as the spread of HIV or other infectious diseases. Once there's evidence of a local health crisis, a jurisdiction must declare a state of emergency. Twenty California cities and counties, including the city of San Diego, have declared such an emergency.
The City Council must renew the state of emergency every three weeks and has done so since October 2000, when the city first began hammering out details for a needle-exchange program. A pilot project was launched on July 18, 2002, at an East Village site, operated by Family Health Centers of San Diego and funded entirely by a grant from the Alliance Healthcare Foundation. Since then, Alliance grants have provided the sole source of program funding—the city contributes no money.
Former Mayor Dick Murphy and City Councilmembers Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer consistently opposed renewing the state of emergency, but yes votes from the other six councilmembers kept the program going. With the resignation of Ralph Inzunza and Michael Zucchet last month, needle-exchange lost two necessary votes, and when the state of emergency came up for renewal on July 18, only four of the six remaining City Council members supported it (five votes were required for passage).
James Dunford, chairman of the city's Clean Syringe Exchange Program and a professor of clinical medicine and surgery at UCSD, told CityBeat that needle exchange ceased immediately after that vote, though the van the program operates from continued to park in its two designated spots—near 30th Street and University Avenue in North Park from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. on Fridays and downtown near 15th and F streets from 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursdays—where staff handed out informational brochures and made referrals to drug treatment and other social-service programs. The one thing they didn't do was take in or distribute needles.
Dunford sent a letter to Bernie Jones, the U-T's op-ed editor, pointing out inconsistencies in the July 29 editorial. That letter, Dunford said, hasn't been published on the letters-to-the-editor page, nor has he heard back from Jones or Bob Kittle, editor of the editorial page. At press time, Kittle hadn't responded to an e-mail or phone message from CityBeat asking about the basis for the claim that the van was still handing out needles.
“Good journalism and good medicine have a lot in common,” Dunford wrote to Jones. “Readers and patients both expect that the opinions of their local newspaper writers and doctors will be based upon fact. Union-Tribune readers should know that the July 29 editorial... contains factual errors that even a cub reporter should have caught.”
Primary among those errors, of course, is the editorial's assertion that the van was exchanging syringes. Neither are there “roving RVs” as the editorial described, said Dunford. “[T]he program employs a single van with professional staff visiting two locations each week for three hours,” he wrote to Jones.
The editorial argued, too, that needle-exchange programs enable addicts. Dunford disagrees, pointing to a 2004 evaluative study of the needle-exchange program conducted by the San Diego Association of Governments. The study followed 110 individuals who used needle-exchange services and found no increase in drug use among them; those clients were also less likely to share used needles since enrolling in the program.
During the period covered by the study—July 2002 through February 2004—staff provided outreach to nearly 7,000 individuals and took in 45,000 more syringes than they handed out (some clients used the program solely as a spot to discard used syringes); 504 clients were referred for drug treatment, HIV testing, detox and other social-service programs. A second study conducted by researchers at San Diego State University found that the program wasn't the bad neighbor it's been portrayed to be-a survey of North Park residents found that 59.5 percent approved of the program while 18.6 percent disapproved.
At press time, neither Maienschein nor Madaffer had responded to a request for comment about their position on needle-exchange. Dunford said members of the Clean Syringe Exchange Program's board have spoken to both men and don't expect either to change his mind.
“A two-vote minority has been able to hold the program hostage,” he said.