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San Diego Poised to OK Needle-Exchange Program

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After years of opposition, this politically conservative city appears on the verge of joining the growing list of communities that provide needle exchanges for drug addicts in an effort to prevent the spread of diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis through dirty needles.

The county Board of Supervisors remains steadfastly against such a program and has forbidden the Department of Health and Human Services from involvement.

But a political shift on the San Diego City Council appears to have provided enough votes to begin a one-year trial program in city neighborhoods with a high rate of disease and drug-related crime. The council is set to discuss the issue Tuesday.

Among other factors, two groups that previously had steered clear of the controversial issue have now come out in favor of needle exchanges: the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of African American ministers and Urban League officials.

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“For a long time, the question was: Where is the black clergy and laity?” said Urban League official Cecil Steppe. “All I can say is, we’re here now.”

Chamber of Commerce officials said among the evidence they considered was information about the devastating economic impact on businesses whose employees contract hepatitis C and require extensive medical care. The chamber has not traditionally been involved in health issues.

“This is a sign of a new chamber,” said chamber official Mitch Mitchell. “Our focus is going to broaden beyond what have been the traditional business issues.”

The nonprofit Alliance Healthcare Foundation has volunteered to run the yearlong program, budgeted at $334,000, at no expense to taxpayers.

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The group has been seeking since 1993 to convince local officials that a needle-exchange program can reduce the spread of disease while not contributing to an increase in drug use.

Needle exchange is endorsed by the American Medical Assn. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other groups. A city task force, headed by a medical professor at UC San Diego, recommended in June a carefully regulated trial program.

In 1997, the Board of Supervisors voted against needle exchange, saying it sends “a mistaken message that the use of illegal substances will be tolerated.”

That stance has remained unchanged despite a law signed in 1999 by Gov. Gray Davis that authorizes needle-exchange programs if there is governmental oversight and drug treatment also is offered.

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San Diego is one of the few large cities in the country without a needle-exchange program.

A year ago, the City Council, shortly after the election of a new mayor and four new council members, rescinded an earlier council’s declaration that a health emergency exists in San Diego. Such a declaration is a precursor to implementing a needle-exchange program.

Mayor Dick Murphy, a former Superior Court judge, led the move to rescind the action. He remains opposed to needle exchange but has not lobbied council members on the issue nor has he used his mayoral authority to keep the issue from the council agenda.

“In my opinion, those kinds of programs just encourage drug use,” Murphy said this week. “But I could not see any reason to bottle up something that a [council] committee recommended.”

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One powerful force in San Diego politics remains unalterably opposed to needle exchange: the editorial page of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

In its most recent anti-needle exchange editorial, the paper ridiculed the idea of a motor home traveling through neighborhoods “like an ice cream truck” offering free needles. A similar approach is used in Los Angeles and Baltimore.

As recommended by the council’s Public Services and Neighborhood Safety Committee, the program would require addicts to get identification cards and limit the number of needles an individual could receive.

The program will be evaluated every 14 to 21 days and can be terminated immediately if problems arise.

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African American ministers said religious leaders must drop their reluctance to address health problems linked to behavior they find sinful, such as drug use and promiscuous sex.

“If sin were blue,” said the Rev. George Walker Smith, “we’d all be the same color.”


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