Schwarzenegger Signs Bill Allowing Pharmacies To Sell Syringes Without Prescriptions
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) on Monday signed into law a bill (SB 1159) to create a five-year pilot program allowing pharmacies to sell as many as 10 syringes to adults without a prescription, which "some advocates describe as one of the state's most important public health policies in two decades," the Sacramento Bee reports (Talev, Sacramento Bee, 9/21). Because of an amendment to the bill that Schwarzenegger had requested, cities and counties must approve pharmacies that seek to participate in the program, which will begin in January.
The bill, which was the third attempt by Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-San Jose) in the past two years to get such legislation enacted, also requires pharmacies to provide information about drug treatment, disease testing and safe syringe disposal (Marimow, San Jose Mercury News, 9/21). The measure also will decriminalize possession of needles without a prescription (Sacramento Bee, 9/21).
Needles currently can only be sold without a prescription in a few circumstances, such as to diabetics who need insulin (Chorneau, AP/San Diego Union-Tribune, 9/21). California will become the 46th state to allow pharmacies to sell syringes without a prescription, according to the Bee (Sacramento Bee, 9/21). The law will expire in 2010 unless the Legislature approves legislation to extend the program (San Jose Mercury News, 9/21).
Schwarzenegger wrote in a statement, "My administration supports this measure because it will prevent the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases among injection drug users, their sexual partners and their children. Research conducted on syringe access through pharmacies in other states concluded that access to sterile syringes and needles significantly decreased HIV and (hepatitis C) but did not increase drug use or crime rates" (Rau/Vogel, Los Angeles Times, 9/21).
Schwarzenegger cited statistics that suggest 1,000 state residents annually are infected with HIV from infected needles. According to a study published in 2000 by the American Journal of Public Health, HIV rates among injection drug users were twice as high -- 13.8% compared with 6.7% -- in cities that did not allow sales of syringes without prescriptions, the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Martin/Gledhill, San Francisco Chronicle, 9/21).
Although Schwarzenegger's approval of legislation that former Gov. Gray Davis (D) twice vetoed might signal that he is more socially moderate than most other state Republicans, the governor "did not go out on a limb" in approving a program that has received support from "a growing number of mainstream health organizations," including the California Medical Association and the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, the Bee reports. Advocates have said that fiscal conservatives also could support the measure because, unlike needle-exchange programs, the legislation will not increase costs for the state and could reduce state health care costs (Sacramento Bee, 9/21).
Bruce Pomer, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California, said, "It's one heck of a whole lot of progress," adding, "If you asked me a couple of years ago if we could have a governor who could sign a bill like that, I would tell you I don't think so" (Los Angeles Times, 9/21).
Glenn Backes, health policy director for the national Drug Policy Alliance, said the governor showed "political guts" in signing the bill to create a program "that should have been [started] 20 years ago if we were guided by science and public health" (San Jose Mercury News, 9/21).
Michael Kennedy, president of the California Narcotics Officers Association, said his group "strongly disagrees" with the bill because it "effectively decriminalizes the possession of syringes throughout California." Kennedy said that some injection drug users will continue to share needles because, "[i]f they're hurting and they need drugs, they're not going to wait for a clean needle. What you're going to find is more needles thrown in the street" (Los Angeles Times, 9/21). He added, "We just feel it's bad for public health and bad for public safety" (Sacramento Bee, 9/21).
Schwarzenegger on Monday also vetoed a bill (AB 2871) that would have "eliminat[ed] some of the red tape" for counties and cities that participate in needle-exchange programs, the Mercury News reports (San Jose Mercury News, 9/21). The bill, sponsored by Assembly member Patty Berg (D-Santa Rosa), would have eliminated a section of state law requiring counties to declare a public health emergency every two weeks to continue operating needle-exchange programs (California Healthline, 9/7). Berg has said the system is too complex and discourages some communities from participating in needle exchanges (AP/San Diego Union Tribune, 9/21).
Schwarzenegger said the current law ensures that local officials are regularly reviewing and examining whether the health benefits of their programs "outweigh any potential adverse impact on the public welfare" (Los Angeles Times, 9/21). In his veto message with the bill, Schwarzenegger said he might "reconsider the concept of this bill in the future if there are appropriate local control measures in place" (San Jose Mercury News, 9/21).