Council Votes to Facilitate Clean Needle Distribution : Health: Mayor is asked to declare AIDS epidemic a state of emergency, which would encourage LAPD to avoid arresting activists for giving out hypodermics.
Saying Los Angeles needs to face reality and head off the further spread of AIDS, the City Council on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a motion designed to stop police from interfering with activists distributing clean needles to drug addicts.
By a 10-1 vote, the council recommended that Mayor Richard Riordan declare the AIDS epidemic a state of emergency, a move that would suggest strongly to the Los Angeles Police Department that public health outweighs enforcing a law against possessing hypodermic needles.
“We’re talking about life and death here,” said council member Jackie Goldberg, who proposed the measure. “This is a health issue.”
A spokeswoman for Riordan said the mayor was reviewing options and had made no decision Tuesday. Riordan, who has previously voiced support for “responsible” needle distribution, is expected to declare the state of emergency.
Goldberg said narcotics users who contract the AIDS virus through contaminated needles are the top transmitters of the disease to non-drug-using heterosexuals. Protecting the needle exchange program, she argued, could help keep the HIV virus from spreading.
Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr. voted against the declaration. “While we all want to turn Los Angeles around in the war on AIDS,” he said, “we must not shift into reverse in the war on drugs.”
But Councilman Mike Hernandez countered: “Let’s choose to deal with our realities,” adding that thousands of lives are at risk.
Goldberg pushed for the declaration after activists in Clean Needles Now, who were distributing needles in Hollywood, were investigated by police officers responding to complaints from critics of the program.
Renee Edgington, who heads Clean Needles Now, said police arrested her June 29 while she was distributing needles and have been investigating other activists.
Edgington said, however, that police have seemed reluctant to enforce the law against distributors of clean needles.
“They know we’re breaking the law,” she said, “but they know it’s for the greater good.”
Assistant Police Chief Bernard Parks said the Police Department supports Goldberg’s recommendation and has always placed little emphasis on interfering with needle exchanges.
“The issue of needles is very low on the priorities of enforcement,” Parks said. He added that the department will take legal action only as a “last resort.”
For two years, Gov. Pete Wilson has vetoed legislation that would legalize needle distribution. In 1993, San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan defied Wilson and declared a public health emergency so the city could fund needle exchanges. Riordan has written Wilson urging him to reconsider his veto.
Supporting the declaration at the council meeting were several health experts, a member of a Hollywood homeowners association and a Hollywood attorney.
City AIDS Coordinator Ferd Eggan said Los Angeles has the second-highest population of intravenous drug users in the nation, an estimated 200,000. But, he said, a remarkably low number of drug users carry HIV, perhaps only 10%.
“We have before us a tremendous opportunity for prevention,” Eggan said.