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Costa Mesa to join Orange County in lawsuit seeking to block state-approved needle-exchange program

Costa Mesa to join Orange County in lawsuit seeking to block state-approved needle-exchange program
The Orange County Needle Exchange Program distributed syringes at the Santa Ana Civic Center before its permit was denied. The Costa Mesa City Council and Orange County Board of Supervisors voted Friday to seek legal action to block the program. (File Photo)

The Costa Mesa City Council and Orange County Board of Supervisors are joining forces, agreeing in separate special meetings Friday to move ahead with a lawsuit seeking an injunction to block a mobile needle-exchange service that recently received state approval to operate in Costa Mesa and three other Orange County cities.

As part of a 4-0 vote to join legal action the county decided on earlier in the day, Costa Mesa council members directed city staff to return next week with an urgency ordinance declaring that the Orange County Needle Exchange Program would be a nuisance because of its proximity to local schools and senior-living facilities, the number of needles that would be handed out and what city officials characterized as a poor track record for managing and disposing of distributed syringes. Councilman Jim Righeimer was absent.

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“It’s not a time for talking … it’s time for action,” said Councilman John Stephens. “Let’s get it on.”

Since learning of the proposal earlier this year, Costa Mesa city staff, police officials and council members have been unified in opposition. They contend the program could attract drug users to the community, undermine the recovery of residents in local sober-living homes, pose safety threats to the public or law enforcement and force families, children and senior citizens to dodge discarded syringes.

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A board member for the needle exchange did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

On Monday, the California Department of Public Health approved a proposal to allow the program to distribute needles and other supplies for two years in Costa Mesa, Anaheim, Orange and Santa Ana.

Supporters say such programs provide clean needles and help prevent the spread of diseases among intravenous drug users.

Though the state’s authorization is effective next week, Costa Mesa Mayor Sandy Genis said Friday that her understanding is the program wouldn’t launch until September.

In Costa Mesa, the program would operate on West 17th Street between Whittier Avenue and the city boundary from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays.

In a letter to the affected cities this week, Department of Public Health Director Karen Smith wrote “there is a public health need for these services due to the significant risk for transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C among people who inject drugs in Orange County.”

She said the department had “identified Orange County as among the California counties most vulnerable to rapid spread of injection drug-use-related … infections.”

Critics, however, say the envisioned Costa Mesa location is inappropriate given its close proximity to homes, businesses and schools, including Whittier Elementary School.

The state’s decision set off an uproar in affected communities and sent elected officials scrambling for a way to stop the program.

“We have taken significant steps in the last year to clean up our streets, not the least is our efforts with the homeless,” county Supervisor Andrew Do said Friday. “We have succeeded in doing so in significant parts of the county. Our progress is threatened and undermined by this needle-exchange program. Now we can send a loud and clear message to the state that Orange County will not allow our sidewalks, our parks, our libraries, to be a hazardous site.”

Previously, the needle exchange operated out of the Santa Ana Civic Center and was the only one of its kind in Orange County. However, Santa Ana scuttled it in January, citing an increase in the number of discarded syringes in the area.

“We need to stop this because it’s clear that the people who are operating this have no interest in having any consideration for our community, so we need to keep them out of our community,” Genis said.

Costa Mesa Councilwoman Katrina Foley characterized the needle exchange as another slap in the face for the city, citing the state’s continued approval of sober-living homes and other addiction recovery facilities despite local opposition.

“We must not tolerate this anymore,” she said. “Our city is not the dumping ground for every drug addict and rehab center in the state of California, and we need to fight back. This lawsuit is the first step, I think.”

Staff writer Ben Brazil contributed to this report.

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