Residents, Businesses Sue LA Health Director Over Needle Distribution in Santa Monica

Residents, Businesses Sue LA Health Director Over Needle Distribution in Santa Monica

A sign hangs on display in front of a popular shopping area of Santa Monica, Calif., on Jan. 19, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Jill McLaughlin
Jill McLaughlin

2/17/2024

Updated: 2/20/2024

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A coalition of residents and businesses in Santa Monica, California, is taking the Los Angeles County Public Health Department to court over its ongoing needle distribution program in the city.
By suing County Health Director Barbara Ferrer, the county Health Department, and the Venice Family Clinic, the Santa Monica Coalition is hoping to remove the county’s needle distribution activities—which provide free syringes and other equipment to drug addicts—from city parks and private property.
Since the open-air program started in 2022, the coalition says the city has seen a dramatic increase in homeless addicts visiting its parks and surrounding residential areas.
“This has led to an increase in overdoses, assaults, and robberies in the three downtown parks, with [two] to [three] deaths a day,” the coalition said in a Feb. 15 statement announcing the lawsuit.
The coalition—made up of residents, business owners, and other locals—is asking the county to move the program to county property or city-owned buildings with direct medical supervision and support services.
A homeless encampment in front of luxury hotels in Santa Monica, Calif., on Jan. 27, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

A homeless encampment in front of luxury hotels in Santa Monica, Calif., on Jan. 27, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

The group also plans to sue two former mayors of Santa Monica, Sue Himmelrich and Gleam Davis, former City Manager Lane Dilg, and current City Manager David White, who the group claims “covertly acknowledged and approved” the program. Separate lawsuits for each official will be filed in federal court, according to the coalition.
The public needle program was discovered by the coalition’s co-founder John Alle and a news reporter in 2022 while walking in the city’s Reed Park, located across from St. Monica’s Church and its K-12 school on California Avenue. The park is also near Westminster Towers, a 266-unit senior living facility.
The distribution program is ongoing at the park, according to the coalition, and at Palisades Park on Ocean Avenue, and at Tongva Park between City Hall and the Santa Monica Pier, a popular destination for beachgoers and tourists.
“More than 70 [percent] of Santa Monica’s residents who live in apartments and condos consider the parks to be their ‘backyards,’” the coalition said.
According to the group, the health department has also confirmed operating at a 7-Eleven on Wilshire Boulevard, across from Reed Park and the Proper Hotel, a five-star luxury hotel near the beach.
“Assaults, theft, and drug use have soared,” the coalition said. “Store sales, hotel bookings, and restaurant revenues have declined as a result.”
In the lawsuit, the group claims the county’s health department did not consult with local law enforcement before authorizing the program and didn’t allow residents a 45-day comment period, as required by the county’s health and safety code.
Among other claims, the lawsuit also alleges the county did not perform an environmental review, as required by the state, for the disposal of needles in the grass and near storm drains at Reed Park.
Santa Monica is the only “open-air” needle distribution program in the United States, the group claims, saying members have documented discarded needles throughout the parks—in the grassy areas and near storm drains, picnic benches, and children’s play areas.
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)

“On a daily basis, hundreds of individuals are sprawled out in the parks, on street corners, in the alleyways, and on the Third Street Promenade,” the group said. “Most of these individuals are incoherent, non-responsive, or behaving erratically.”
The lawsuit claims the program has also caused an increase in drug overdoses.
“Santa Monica is now one of the top three fentanyl overdose sites in Los Angeles County,” the group said.
The public health department couldn’t comment on the pending litigation, a department spokesperson told The Epoch Times.
But according to a statement provided to The Epoch Times, the program has provided free syringes and other equipment to homeless people and drug addicts in the county as a way to prevent overdoses and reduce transmission diseases, such as AIDS and hepatitis.
A homeless encampment in Santa Monica., Calif., on Nov. 27, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Time)

A homeless encampment in Santa Monica., Calif., on Nov. 27, 2023. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Time)

In 2022, about 3,220 people in Los Angeles County died from an overdose, and over half of those involved fentanyl or methamphetamine, according to a report from the county public health department.
About two homeless people die in the county every day, on average, from drug overdose, which is the leading cause of death in the transient community, according to a news release issued by the department last summer. The percentage of overdose deaths involving fentanyl in the county has tripled from 20 percent in 2019 to 58 percent in 2021.
Ms. Ferrer was appointed to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in 2017. The needle program in the county started in 1992 after a public campaign by activists to prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases from the use of dirty needles.
In 2022, the county’s public health office started a certification program, allowing organizations to provide sterile needles, syringes, and other equipment in the county.
The Venice Family Clinic did not return a request for comment.
A Venice Family Clinic van is seen in a park in Santa Monica, Calif. (Courtesy of John Alle)

A Venice Family Clinic van is seen in a park in Santa Monica, Calif. (Courtesy of John Alle)

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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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