California County DA Responds to State Lawsuit to Overturn County’s Ban on Needle-Exchange Program

California County DA Responds to State Lawsuit to Overturn County’s Ban on Needle-Exchange Program

El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson address members of the press in Placerville, Calif., on Sept. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/The Sacramento Bee, Randall Benton)

Jill McLaughlin

Jill McLaughlin

3/21/2024

Updated: 6/5/2024

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El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson said he is “furious” at California leaders, after learning March 19 the state has filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the county’s ban on the state’s needle exchange program.
The state sued El Dorado County and the city of Placerville, located in northeastern California at the base of South Lake Tahoe, for prohibiting a state program that distributes clean syringes for drug use to addicts and the homeless population.
“This is disastrously dangerous, and I am furious at our state leaders,” Mr. Pierson said in a statement Tuesday. “Don’t come into our county and double down on your failed policy.”
Allowing addicts to use fentanyl and other hardcore drugs is what has caused other California counties to experience a death rate that is “out of control and getting worse,” Mr. Pierson added.
The county passed an ordinance in December making it a misdemeanor to distribute needles, while Placerville passed a similar measure in February.
The lawsuit, filed March 5 in El Dorado County Superior Court by California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office on behalf of the state’s public health department, claims the county and city bans are unlawful.
Mr. Bonta’s office declined to provide a copy of the lawsuit and referred all questions to the public health department.

Cities, Counties Reject Program

El Dorado County is the latest jurisdiction to push back against the state’s needle program. A coalition of businesses and residents in Santa Monica sued Los Angeles County’s health director and the county’s public health department in February after officials authorized an open-air drug syringe exchange at city parks, which they say has increased homelessness and drug addiction.
The Santa Monica program has created a proliferation of used needles discarded in public areas, including children’s play areas and on grass at the park, according to the coalition.
Orange County officials also opposed the state’s needle-exchange program in 2018, and remains the largest county in the state without it. The city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, also rejected a proposal for a home-delivery syringe service in 2023, citing general public health concerns.
A family uses a playground near a homeless man in Santa Monica, Calif., on June 2, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

A family uses a playground near a homeless man in Santa Monica, Calif., on June 2, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

‘Harm Reduction’

The state alleges its needle-exchange program operates as a so-called harm reduction model.
The program provides sterile needles and syringes to drug addicts and collects used drug paraphernalia, with the aim of reducing the spread of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), viral hepatitis, and other pathogens, according to the lawsuit.
The state also distributes naloxone, a medicine that quickly reverses an opioid overdose, and trains people in its use.
In 2005, the state’s Legislature passed the Clean Needle Syringe and Exchange Project, saying the state’s streets lacked sterile needles, which promoted the spread of HIV among drug users.
While counties and cities were first allowed to decide whether their jurisdictions would participate, the Legislature amended the law in 2011 to allow the state’s Public Health Department to authorize the program in any state location.
In January 2020, the health department authorized the Sierra Harm Reduction Coalition, a social justice movement that believes in the rights of people who use drugs, to provide syringe services in El Dorado County.
Since then, the coalition has offered needles, needle disposal, fentanyl and xylazine test strips, medical referrals, and drug treatment services in the county. The group has also offered vaccinations and other services, according to the state’s lawsuit.
The program was reauthorized in 2021.
The coalition, however, reduced its services to only include home delivery and pick-up services to homes, tents, recreational vehicles, and other alternative housing in the county in September 2023.
The El Dorado County ordinance, which took effect Jan. 11, made it “unlawful and a public nuisance for any person to create, establish, operate, conduct, or participate in a syringe exchange program within the unincorporated areas of El Dorado.”
Anyone who violates the ordinance is guilty of a misdemeanor and can face punishment or a fine determined by the county.
The state’s public health department then approved a new plan for the coalition to operate only in Placerville. In response, the city council adopted an urgency ordinance to prohibit the syringe exchange program.
In the lawsuit, the state is asking the court to order El Dorado County and the city of Placerville to stop enforcing the bans.
A harm reduction kit featuring syringes and Narcan sits on a table in San Francisco on Feb. 22, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

A harm reduction kit featuring syringes and Narcan sits on a table in San Francisco on Feb. 22, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

The district attorney vowed, however, to fight the state’s attempts to force its needle policy on county residents.
“This lawsuit is madness,” Mr. Pierson said. “I will fight against it tooth and nail because the citizens of this county deserve policies that will keep them as safe as possible.”
The California Department of Public Health did not have any comment about the litigation, according to its communications office.
“In general, harm reduction programs help people who use drugs to protect themselves from injury and infections and provide essential safety net services,” the communications office told The Epoch Times in an email. “Recent increases in hepatitis C infection and the rise of fentanyl have made harm reduction efforts such as syringe services programs … pharmacy sale of syringes, and naloxone distribution programs even more critical to protect public health.”
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Jill McLaughlin

Jill McLaughlin

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Jill McLaughlin is an award-winning journalist covering politics, environment, and statewide issues. She has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Oregon, Nevada, and New Mexico. Jill was born in Yosemite National Park and enjoys the majestic outdoors, traveling, golfing, and hiking.

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