A human rights advocacy group Tuesday accused police in California of routinely interfering with legitimate needle-exchange programs intended to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, alleged in a report that police intent on enforcing drug laws often arrest or hassle patrons of locally approved needle-exchange programs throughout the state. The group said that police, in effect, are discouraging people from using a public health program that could save their lives.
Public health officials have long focused on contaminated needles in the fight against blood-borne diseases such as AIDS.
About 28% of new AIDS cases in the United States in 2002 can be traced to dirty needles, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“In some countries, sterile syringe programs are viewed as an integral and important part of a country’s HIV strategy, whereas here [drug users] have to risk arrest and struggle very hard to assert themselves” to get clean needles, said Jonathan Cohen, an HIV/AIDS researcher with Human Rights Watch.
California law presents a dilemma: Needle-exchange programs were made legal several years ago, but possessing drug paraphernalia such as syringes is still illegal. It is illegal to buy syringes at a pharmacy without a prescription.
Cohen said his group interviewed 67 Californians who use needle-exchange programs.
But the report received a harsh response from John Lovell, a Sacramento lobbyist who represents the California Narcotics Officers Assn., the California Police Chiefs Assn. and the California Peace Officers Assn.
“I’ve never heard that [allegation] before from anyone, not from public health activists in California or the ACLU,” Lovell said. “I think they’re lying.”
Lovell said that the police groups he represents support needle-exchange programs and that it is inevitable that some drug addicts who use exchanges will run afoul of the law for other reasons -- disorderly conduct, for example.
Shoshanna Scholar, the program director of Clean Needles Now in Hollywood, said the organization has a good working relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department.
She added, however, that some people who use the program, which distributes 70,000 needles each month, have complained that LAPD officers sometimes take needles or rip up their needle-exchange identification cards.
Jerry Davila, the assistant AIDS coordinator for the city of Los Angeles, agreed.
“We have received some complaints that there have been some isolated cases of police harassment ... but I don’t think it’s a major problem right now.”
The debate over needle-exchange programs often focuses on whether such programs promote drug use. Some health officials, particularly in European nations, have said that it doesn’t matter because AIDS constitutes a far greater health crisis than drug use and that everything possible must be done to stop it.
Health advocates also argue that the cost of a clean syringe -- typically 10 cents -- is far less than the thousands of dollars spent on providing care for someone with AIDS.
A bill being debated in the Legislature, SB 774, would allow pharmacies to sell a limited amount of needles without a prescription. A similar bill was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis last fall, and he has yet to say whether he will support the new bill.