SAN DIEGO (CNS) – The county Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted 3-2 in favor of developing a needle exchange program, nullifying a 1997 board decision.
Reversing the county’s 23-year-old ban, the program will create a new strategy focusing on harm reduction to prevent overdoses and the spread of infectious diseases, officials said. Supervisors directed the chief administrative officer to present a comprehensive plan, known as the County Substance Use Harm Reduction Strategy, within 90 days.
Advocates say needle exchange programs reduce both HIV and Hepatitis C transmission.
Board Chairman Nathan Fletcher said when it comes to changing the policy “the evidence could not be more clear, and the time is now.”
Supervisors Joel Anderson and Jim Desmond were opposed.
Anderson said he wasn’t against Fletcher’s proposal, but wasn’t comfortable “voting and then later learning that all the clinics are going to be located in my district.” He said he wanted to see a plan first, adding, “Is there some middle ground? I hate to vote against this.”
Desmond said that giving out needles still has the appearance of promoting drug abuse. “I would like to see an emphasis on prevention,” he added. “I see that needle exchange (would) ‘promote health among those who are using,’ but I think we’re kind of treating the symptom instead of the cause.”
Before voting, supervisors heard from several advocates for a needle exchange program.
Tara Stamos-Buesig, executive director at Harm Reduction Coalition of San Diego County, called harm reduction the off-ramp from drug abuse.
She added that those in the program don’t feel stigmatized, and many are sent into treatment. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for a syringe service program,” Stamos-Buesig said. “If not us, then who? If not now, when?”
In March 2020, Fletcher proposed that the county lift its ban on needle exchange programs and develop a strategy to reduce harm for syringe users.
The board instead voted 3-2, with both Desmond and former Supervisor Dianne Jacob opposed, to form a subcommittee to work on the proposal and return it in a few months. The subcommittee’s work was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.