Volunteer Emily Agers, with some of the needles SOS is no longer allowed to distribute in Lower Ocean.
Editor’s Note: This is part two of our look at major shifts in the way drug use is being approached as a public health problem in Santa Cruz.
“It saved my life,” says Roxanne Baker of the needle exchange program in Santa Cruz’s Lower Ocean area. Now 60, Baker has long since recovered from a drug addiction that lasted 34 years. But she almost didn’t get the chance. In 1991, her husband contracted AIDS from a dirty syringe.
“The needle exchange was making its first appearance down in the Beach Flats then,” explains Baker. “So my husband and I were able to have our own, separate utensils. He’s been [dead] 21 years now, but it’s because of the needle exchange that I wasn’t infected. That’s when I started becoming involved in harm reduction.”
She is now, in fact, the president of the National Alliance for Medication Assisted Recovery. But the local Syringe Exchange Program (SEP) that gave her a new lease on life is under heavy fire.
At the end of last month, the non-profit, volunteer-based group which runs the program, Street Outreach Supporters (SOS), was told to stop operating at their regular exchange site at a laundromat on Barson and Bixby in Lower Ocean, where there’s been a needle exchange for over two decades, in one form or another. Complaints from neighborhood residents led Bei-Scott & Co., the property owner, to serve a cease and desist letter to SOS. Representatives at Bei-Scott & Co. refused to be interviewed.
The shutdown seems to have been spurred by city pressure. On January 22, before Bei-Scott & Co. sent the letter, City Attorney John Barisone was given permission by the City Council, in a closed session, to begin code enforcement activity against the property.
Barisone says the property wasn’t zoned for a needle exchange. However, according to Zoning Administrator Eric Marlatt, the SEP is “like a medical office,” and medical offices are zoned for the Ocean Street area.
“It’s not the same [as a medical office], but it’s similar,” Marlatt states. “We have a provision in our zoning code that allows for a ‘use determination’ to be made.” Meaning that if SOS were to apply for a use permit, the Zoning Administrator would then approve or deny the request depending on if the use is determined to be compatible with the surrounding area.
So why is the city now suddenly cracking down on a program that’s been operating for so long?
“I was unaware of the needle exchange until recently,” says Barisone. “Nobody has said the Needle Exchange cannot operate, but it cannot set up without a use permit.”
Volunteers from SOS say that in all the years of the program they were never told they needed a permit to operate the program. They have not yet filed for one, though they may still do so. Meanwhile, they continue to operate in the parking lot of the County Public Health office on Emeline. However, many fear the out-of-the-way location will discourage participants from using it.
When asked about the closed nature of the meeting at which the needle exchange issue was decided, Barisone replied that he couldn’t discuss any direction he received from the City Council on the matter, or any conversations he had with council members.
Four-term City Councilwoman Cynthia Matthews believes the needle exchange should be an ongoing, community debate.
“We acknowledge the clear public health benefits of a needle exchange, but we want to continue discussions that are also responsive to the legitimate concerns of the community,” she says.
Community groups like Take Back Santa Cruz who met with the City Council about resident complaints argue that the needle exchange lacks proper oversight and is the reason why so many used syringes have been found on Santa Cruz beaches, in parks and on local streets.
However, Take Back Santa Cruz’s research on local pharmacies also revealed other problems with needle disposal. Only five of the eight pharmacies surveyed would accept used syringes for disposal, even if they were in the proper sharps container. Under California state law, pharmacies are also allowed to sell up to 30 syringes without a prescription, and do not require customers to bring back the used ones. Interestingly, only three pharmacies were willing to give Take Back Santa Cruz members proper sharps containers for disposal. All of the containers also had a sticker with SOS’s number for people to call if they needed any more supplies for free.
“We support needle exchange, actually,” says Take Back Santa Cruz spokeswoman, Analicia Lesnowicz. “We feel like it’s important, and something our community needs.”
Lesnowicz says Take Back Santa Cruz’s stance on Street Outreach Supporters has been mischaracterized, and that the group isn’t trying to sabotage their work. “No, no way. There’s always going to be people who hate Take Back Santa Cruz, but never have [we] said, ‘[we] want to end needle exchange.’ What Take Back Santa Cruz is saying is that we need to fund our needle exchange better.”
Problem or Solution?
Some locals believe the needle exchange program enables drug users to continue their habits, despite numerous studies—funded by a wide range of groups including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Office of the Surgeon General and even the World Health Organization—contradicting that notion.
Hilary McQuei of the national Harm Reduction Coalition believes that many in the community don’t understand what SOS contributes. “What happens when SOS no longer collects the 20,000 syringes a month that they have been?” she says. “You take that away and I think you’ll see a lot more syringes on the beaches. People won’t have a place to bring them and there is no incentive to keep the used ones. SOS is part of the solution, not the problem.”