Under pressure from law enforcement and in an effort to be a good neighbor, the Modesto Needle Exchange program moved recently from a park in the airport neighborhood to an industrial area one mile to the east.
The exchange operated for 10 months undisturbed in Mono Park until late last year, when Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputies went to the exchange several times. On one or two occasions, the deputies asked people in line waiting to receive needles if they were on probation or parole, and took note of license plate numbers.
Sheriff Adam Christianson said they went in response to complaints by residents of dirty needles littering the neighborhood, including at nearby Orville Wright Elementary School.
Needle exchange volunteers believe law enforcement is using the situation to target and harass their clients.
“We hear their concerns about being in a venue that might be unsafe, that a child might pick up a needle ... but we are not going to stop what we are doing,” said Dr. Marc Lasher, who examines clients for signs of drug use that indicate a medical need to receive syringes. “We are out here, there’s no park, there’s no residences. If there is continued picking off of our people, then for sure it’s harassment.”
Client Anastasia Rego said she was stopped by police while walking down the street three days after deputies showed up at the exchange in January. “They have stopped me and said, ‘You are a known drug addict,’ and I said, ‘I am actually known for many things other than that,’ ” she said.
Rego was a well-known promoter within Modesto’s music community in the early and mid-2000s and co-founder of the Central Valley Indie Fest; she also was a visiting editor at The Modesto Bee in 2008.
Her opiate addiction began around that time under the care of David Kerwin, a former doctor who surrendered his license in 2008 to settle state medical board charges of unnecessary and excessive prescribing of narcotic pain medication.
“When he lost his license, that sent hella people out on the street,” Rego said.
Heroin use has increased steadily since the mid-2000s statewide, but particularly in Stanislaus County, where it’s beginning to rival methamphetamine use. The percentage of people entering drug treatment programs in Stanislaus County who named heroin as their drug of choice increased from 22.6 percent in 2008-09 to 31.2 percent in 2012-13.
Rego said the needle exchange is vital to help prevent the spread of diseases such as hepatitis C and AIDS.
“I’ve seen people use – they call them ‘pitchforks’ – one-use needles used hundreds of times and on several addicts until they snap off in their body. ... I’ve seen people pull needles from the garbage and not even really rinse them out,” she said.
The exchange operates under a state law enacted in 2012. 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.
They also provide other items used to inject heroin or methamphetamine, such as tourniquets, alcohol swabs, small metal cups for mixing the drugs, and just about anything else that might come in contact with blood.
Modesto police Lt. Alex Bettis visited the exchange a few weeks ago at its new location, a small strip of dirt on the east side of Daly Street where a chain-link fence topped with barbwire serves as a backdrop. The location is not within Modesto police jurisdiction, but Bettis said he fielded many of the calls about dirty needles being discarded in the neighborhood and that remains his primary concern.
“I saw one person turn in three syringes and get 30 in return,” Bettis said. “In my opinion, that has created an explosion in the number of needles out in the community. I appreciate the benefits to public health, but I think the needle exchange enables heroin users and puts more needles out in the community.”
Lasher said they always give clients the maximum number of needles allowed by the law, 30, because the average addict uses three to five times a day, so needs that many to get through the week. He said sometimes people don’t have any used needles to dispose of because they just were confiscated by police or stolen, but generally the exchange volunteers do not ask questions.
He said they are trying to address concerns of littered needles by handing out sharps containers and educating clients about proper disposal.
Christianson said he also appreciates the effort made by needle exchange volunteers to move to a more appropriate location, but said his position on the program has not changed. “The sheriff’s office will continue to enforce the terms and conditions of probation, parole and/or PRCS (post-release community supervision),” he said. “Compliance is a critical part of accountability and protects the community. There must be consequences for criminal conduct and behavior.”
He believes addicts in general participate in high-risk sexual behavior that spreads the same diseases the exchange is trying to keep in check.
“I would think that the proponents of needle exchange programs would be more interested in referring drug-addicted individuals to rehabilitative services rather than continuing to provide the very tools they need to fuel their addiction,” Christianson said.
Volunteers do hand out pamphlets for rehabilitation programs and methadone clinics, but executive director Brian Robinson said the primary goal of exchange is “harm reduction,” preventing the spread of disease and overdoses.
The volunteers also hand out pamphlets detailing how to most safely smoke, snort or inject heroin and how to prevent overdose with each method. Lasher on occasion writes prescriptions for Naloxone, a drug used to counter the effects of heroin overdose, following a 15-minute lesson on how to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Rego said there are many users who could benefit from the needle exchange who are afraid to go because they don’t want to be targeted by police.
“They think that by intimidating addicts and marginalizing them, they are going to get them out of the community. I think that’s a mistake,” Rego said.