NEEDLE EXCHANGE: Bill Passes Legislature, Future Uncertain
Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni's (D-San Rafael) controversial needle exchange bill, AB 518, squeaked through the state Senate yesterday but faces a "likely veto" from Gov. Gray Davis, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. After trying five times in six years to send the governor a needle exchange bill, the Senate mustered the "bare minimum" needed to pass the bill -- 21 favorable votes -- but still is unsure of Davis' next move. "Based on what he has said in the past, (Davis) sees it as a local issue that should be dealt with on the local level," said Davis spokesperson Hilary McLean (Lucas, 8/25). The issue sparked an "emotional debate" yesterday, as supporters saw the measure as an opportunity to curb the transmission of HIV among intravenous drug users, while opponents saw it as a mixed message to California youth. "This is the most ridiculous thing we could do," said Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City), adding, "It's a careless mixed message to young people and will bring more people into heroin use than it will protect." Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) countered that youths already know about illegal drugs, regardless of whether the state authorizes needle exchanges. "The cost of a needle is 10 cents; the cost of treating somebody with AIDS can be $120,000," he said (Matthews, Sacramento Bee, 8/25). Currently, four California cities -- Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Cruz -- have sidestepped state law barring such programs by adopting "emergency ordinances allowing needle exchanges." Fifteen other states currently fund needle exchange programs; Mazzoni estimates more than twice that many operate such programs using private funds (AP/NandoTimes, 8/24). The San Francisco AIDS Foundation praised the bill's passage. "AB 518 puts sound public health policy above politics," said SFAF Executive Director Pat Christen, adding, "Given the number of HIV infections directly and indirectly associated with injection drug use and the proven effectiveness of needle exchange programs, California cannot afford to ignore this vital prevention tool" (SFAF release, 8/24).
Ball in Davis' Court
Now that the bill is on Gov. Davis' desk, he "has the chance to show he is both bolder and more compassionate than his predecessor, Pete Wilson, who three times vetoed similar legislation," says an editorial in today's Sacramento Bee. In urging Davis to sign the bill, the piece points to successful needle exchanges in other states that have not increased drug use, as opponents have feared. In addition, "research has shown that needle exchanges can reduce new HIV infections by one third," which has "been enough to convince Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan (R) -- by no accounts wild-eyed liberals -- to lobby actively for the Mazzoni bill." Nonetheless, Davis is faced with the ire of law enforcement groups that oppose the bill, the piece concludes, which puts him in a tough position. All the same, "Davis ought not to let the political risks blind him to the deadly consequences that the continued circulation of infected needles pose," the editorial concludes (8/25).
One Man's Crusade
AIDS Prevention Action Network Director Joey Tranchina of San Francisco, CA, has long thought that clean needle programs could stem the spread of HIV and hepatitis C among intravenous drug users, according to a profile in Saturday's San Francisco Chronicle. Tranchina, a photographer by trade, started his crusade 10 years ago by passing out syringes from the trunk of his car. After funding the network on his own for five years, the United Way and other organizations began donating supplies, and last year, the network made nearly 6,000 client contacts in Redwood City, Palo Alto, South San Francisco and San Mateo County. "The problem is everywhere," he said before his speech at the "World and Hepatitis C" conference in Oakland over the weekend. Hepatitis is "a slow moving train, but like HIV, it eventually comes just the same," he said. Tranchina, who "is in the initial stages of a program to test current and former clients for HCV," said he suspects that 95% are already infected. Although distributing syringes without a prescription is illegal in California, the California Syringe Exchange estimates that the state harbors 24 needle exchange programs, "serving nearly 400,000 injection drug users," while San Francisco and Marin counties have "made emergency declarations" and won local government support for their needle exchange programs. The Chronicle reports that Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara do no officially endorse needle exchange programs" but do lend their support to Mazzoni's bill (Lynem, 8/21).