Responding to neighborhood complaints, law enforcement over the past month has kept an eye on a needle exchange program that otherwise has operated undisturbed for almost a year.
About 100 people regularly attend the Modesto Needle Exchange every Tuesday in Mono Park, where they are seen by a doctor and can get up to 30 sterile syringes and other supplies, such as condoms, tourniquets, clean water to mix their drugs and alcohol swabs. But Tuesday, only a third of the regular clients came; most were deterred by a law enforcement presence, said the exchange’s director, Brian Robinson.
He said Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputies have shown up during the exchange three times in the past month and on Tuesday were recording names of clients and asking if they were on probation or parole.
“Parks are for families and children, not for drug dealers, drug addicts and needle exchange programs,” said Sheriff Adam Christianson. “Drug addiction, drug use and needle exchange programs go hand in hand with criminal conduct and behavior.”
Needle exchange programs long have been controversial, pitting many health professionals, who say they help curb the spread of disease, against those who believe they enable drug users.
Christianson said Crime Reduction Team deputies are responding to complaints from nearby residents who say the program attracts even more drug users to the embattled neighborhood, leaving dirty syringes lying around to be discovered by children.
Change in the law
It’s not the first time the Modesto Needle Exchange has butt heads with law enforcement in Stanislaus County.
In 2009, Robinson and another volunteer were arrested and charged with furnishing drug paraphernalia when he operated the program illegally. They stopped the program after their arrest, and charges against them were dropped in exchange for their participation in a six-hour drug and alcohol rehabilitation class. “Which we weren’t happy about,” Robinson said. “We weren’t selling drugs.”
At the time, needle exchange programs had to be authorized by counties. The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors nixed a proposal for a program in 2008 despite recommendations from a civil grand jury and county health professionals.
Representatives from the county Health Services Agency declined to comment about Robinson’s program, which operates legally under a state law enacted last year. Senate Bill 41 (Leland Yee, D-San Francisco) allows physicians, pharmacists and sanctioned needle exchange programs to provide up to 30 sterile syringes to injection drug users to prevent the spread of diseases such as hepatitis C, HIV and AIDS. All local legislators, except then-Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, voted “no” on SB 41.
Robinson again started operating a needle exchange in Mono Park in February with the help of friends from the Fresno Needle Exchange, Dallas Blanchard and Dr. Marc Lasher. A Modesto native, Robinson said he was inspired by Blanchard to start a program in Modesto.
The Fresno Needle Exchange program has operated successfully for nearly 20 years. Until last year, it was run underground because, although it was tolerated by county and city officials and police looked the other way, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors never agreed to endorse it and in fact reneged at the last minute on a deal for a pilot program.
Another law enacted last year allows the program to become sanctioned by the state if the California Department of Health Services identifies a health risk and local governments are not willing to give consent. Neither Fresno’s nor Modesto’s needle exchange is state sanctioned, but both operate legitimately because of the involvement of Lasher.
Disposing of needles
During the exchange in Modesto, clients line up to meet with Lasher, who asks what types of drugs they inject and asks to see track marks and abscesses or infection caused by the use of dirty needles. “That tells me there is a medical indication for them to be receiving this care,” he said.
Most of the people coming to the exchange use heroin, but others inject methamphetamine. They are given a card with the health and safety code printed on it that allows Lasher to provide the needles, then are sent to a 15-gallon sharps container, where they must deposit dirty needles before picking up a new pack of 30.
The exchange is not needle-for-needle. Some dispose of more than 30 syringes, others less. Robinson said it is in the clients’ best interest to return with used needles because they must have at least some to get new ones. He encourages clients to return all used needles.
Robinson said he fills and safely disposes of about five 15-gallon sharps containers a month through the exchange of 3,000 to 4,000 syringes each week. But critics say too many of those needles aren’t being properly disposed of and end up littering vacant houses, alleys, parks and even Orville Wright Elementary School.
Principal Heather Sherburn knows drug use is a reality of the airport neighborhood, but she has noticed an increase in dirty syringes found on campus. Three to four times a week, she said, the janitorial staff, teachers and students find drug paraphernalia, mainly needles.
She had to hold an assembly to remind students of what syringes look like and never to pick them up, and staff had to get additional training in handling and disposing of needles.
“I’m used to people using pot or meth, but this is a different crowd that has started through the neighborhood again,” Sherburn said of those who inject heroin.
Recently, she said, a group of people came onto campus while children were present, stole a garden hose, hooked it up to a city water spigot behind the school and proceeded to wash their clothes.
“Drug addicts can take syringes by the handful at a needle exchange,” said Modesto police Lt. Alex Bettis, commander of the city’s portion of the airport neighborhood. “The problem is they’re not making it back to be destroyed ... they end up discarded at the whim of the user, sometimes at the detriment to the community.”
Robinson said drug use always has been a problem in the airport neighborhood, which is what led him there to begin the program four years ago.
“The day I came here, I saw a gentleman drawing a syringe out of a puddle and it messed me up,” he said. “You feel really bad, and something has to be done.”
Robinson said providing clean needles doesn’t encourage drug use because people addicted to methamphetamine or heroin would find a way to use regardless. The exchange program promotes “harm reduction,” he said. “We are not a rehabilitation program. The theory of harm reduction is to come to someone where they are at, rather than telling them where they need to be. It is much more compassionate.”
The people who use the program agree. Some started using drugs six months ago, others have been using since the 1980s.
“If people are addicted, they are going to use no matter what, so they might as well have access to clean needles,” said a man who has been using heroin for five years and uses the needle exchange.
Another man – both asked to remain anonymous – who has been injecting methamphetamine for 15 years, called the program a “godsend.”
“I have seen four or five people using the same needle before,” he said. “It’s awful to have to do that because you don’t know what you’re going to spread: AIDS, hepatitis, whatever they have.”
Under SB 41, pharmacies can sell 30 nonprescription syringes, but none in Stanislaus County does, according to resources from the California Department of Public Health. The exchange is the only place for intravenous drug users to get sterile needles.
New site sought
The law allows people to possess clean syringes without a prescription, but by the time police come in contact with users, the syringes often contain drug residue, rendering them paraphernalia instead of medical tools, said Bettis. Furthermore, he said, it is at an officer’s discretion whether to make an arrest in such circumstances; Lasher’s card comes into play only if a drug user is prosecuted.
“Most of the individuals involved in obtaining needles through this program are on some type of supervised release probation,” Christianson said. “The terms and conditions of probation and supervision are very restrictive and usually prohibit the possession of narcotics and other controlled substances.” Mono Park is in his jurisdiction.
He said his deputies will continue to monitor the situation and watch for criminal activity associated with drug use.
After deputies’ visit this week, Robinson, Lasher and Blanchard started scouting for new locations, farther from schools and parks. They hadn’t finalized anything, so they didn’t want to disclose any potential locations this week, but said they are looking for space near a commercial area.
Blanchard said they were contacting owners of businesses the program would operate near, something he admits they should have been more vigilant about in the airport neighborhood.
Their goal for the program is to get it certified by the state so it can operate independently of the Fresno Needle Exchange and to find common ground with law enforcement.
“The way I look at it is how do you change a society, how do you change a community to reflect a health policy that is caring and meaningful as opposed to just going upon morality that doesn’t stop the spread of disease,” said Lasher.