Fresno County Approves Needle Exchange Pilot Program

A monumental victory was reached this last week, when a needle exchange pilot program was approved by the Fresno County Board Of Supervisors. This success comes after a very long and difficult struggle to get the program started. The following is the report from The Fresno Bee…



By Barbara Anderson / The Fresno Bee

Intravenous drug users can legally receive clean hypodermic needles in exchange for dirty ones in a pilot program approved Tuesday by the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. The one-year program, which includes substance-abuse counseling, will allow members of the Fresno Needle Exchange to move off the street and into a building where they can dispense clean needles without fear of arrest.

"We can reach so many more people," said Dallas Blanchard, who has been dispensing clean needles to injection drug users for 13 years.




Volunteers have been illegally handing out 6,000 to 8,000 clean needles each Saturday and receive that many dirty ones for safe disposal, he said.

The illegal exchange has never been a secret. It occurs in Fresno down the street from the California Highway Patrol offices at West and Hedges avenues. Police look the other way.

But while the underground exchange has been tolerated, it’s never been endorsed by the Board of Supervisors, who repeatedly refused to approve requests for a legal program.

Supervisors voted against creating a program the last time in 2006. At that time, Supervisor Susan Anderson was the lone dissenting vote for a legal exchange.

On Tuesday, supervisors voted 3-2 for the needle-exchange plan proposed by Dr. Edward Moreno, the county’s public health officer. Supervisors Anderson and Bob Waterston and Board President Henry Perea voted for approval.

In their support, supervisors said they were sensitive to law enforcement concerns about illegal drug use, but the county needs to reduce the spread of disease. Among intravenous drug users, needle-exchange programs have been shown to decrease hepatitis C and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

A 2005 study estimated 15,169 injection drug users in Fresno County , with 11,377 most likely infected with hepatitis C, a liver disease that can be deadly.

Under the program proposed by Moreno , hypodermic needles will be exchanged once a week at The Living Room, a support center for people with HIV and AIDS and operated by WestCare, a nonprofit health and human-services agency.

County substance-abuse staff will provide information about drug-treatment options and referrals.

Fresno County health workers, who have been offering free HIV and hepatitis C screenings at the illegal exchange, will continue to provide the tests at The Living Room, said Jena Adams, a communicable-disease specialist with the county’s Department of Public Health.

Dr. Marc Lasher has agreed to provide free medical care. Lasher has offered the care to drug users who come to the illegal exchange.

"I’m ecstatic," Lasher said from his office after the board meeting. "We’ve worked so hard for it over the years."

Lasher credited Moreno for proposing a treatment-based program that got the needle-exchange program approved.

State law allows California counties and cities to operate needle-exchange programs. Seventeen counties and three cities have such programs, said Alessandra Ross of the state Office of AIDS. Ross offered her assistance to Fresno County health officials in proposing the pilot program and was in Fresno on Tuesday to offer support.

Blanchard said he would like to hand out more clean needles.

"The main point is there is a cure for HIV and hepatitis C," he said before the board meeting. "The cure is prevention, and syringe exchange is prevention."

Bee staff writer Brad Branan contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at banderson@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6310.

 

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