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Governor OKs Over-the-Counter Sale of Syringes

Times Staff Writers

Swerving to the left of his Democratic predecessor on a highly contested public health fight, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday signed legislation allowing pharmacists to sell up to 10 clean syringes without a prescription.

In approving a bill similar to ones former Gov. Gray Davis vetoed in his last two years, Schwarzenegger rejected the fears of some law-enforcement groups that making needles easy to obtain would condone drug use. AIDS activists and physicians say addicts with access to clean needles will be more likely to avoid infection with HIV and hepatitis B and C.

“My administration supports this measure because it will prevent the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases among injection drug users, their sexual partners and their children,” Schwarzenegger wrote in a message with the bill signing. “Research conducted on syringe access through pharmacies in other states concluded that access to sterile syringes and needles significantly decreased HIV and [hepatitis C], but did not increase drug use or crime rates.”

At the same time, Schwarzenegger vetoed another bill that would have made it easier for local governments to run needle-exchange programs under a 4-year-old system instituted under Davis. And he agreed to the pharmacy legislation only after lawmakers modified it so pharmacy sales could take place only in counties and cities that first voted to permit them.

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Advocates said the bill signing was a significant political victory. Only four other states still require a prescription in order to purchase a syringe.

“It’s one heck of a whole lot of progress,” said Bruce Pomer, executive director of the Health Officers Assn. of California. “If you asked me a couple of years ago if we could have a governor who could sign a bill like that, I would tell you I don’t think so.”

Glenn Backes, health policy director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit group, said: “This is the most important AIDS-prevention legislation in the history of California.”

“Needle exchange the way Davis did it has helped create about 20 legal access points for sterile syringes. There are hundreds of pharmacies in Los Angeles County which, if the county so chooses, could become legal points of access for sterile syringes.”

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But Michael Kennedy, president of the California Narcotic Officers’ Assn., said his group “strongly disagrees” with the governor’s approval.

“We feel it effectively decriminalizes the possession of syringes throughout California,” said Kennedy. He predicted that addicts would get clean needles under the new law as a matter of convenience but would continue to share used needles.

“If they’re hurting and they need drugs,” Kennedy said, “they’re not going to wait for a clean needle. What you’re going to find is more needles thrown in the street.”

The bill Schwarzenegger rejected would have allowed cities and counties with free needle-exchange programs -- 14 at last count -- to keep the programs running without having to renew a declaration of a health emergency every two or three weeks. Schwarzenegger acknowledged the system was cumbersome but said it would ensure that local officials regularly check to make sure that the health benefits of the programs “outweigh any potential adverse impact on the public welfare.”

Along with the actions on needle bills, Schwarzenegger showed his willingness to take a nuanced position on another much-debated social issue: gun-control legislation. A week after the governor signed a ban on .50-caliber weapons, he vetoed several measures, including one that would have required sellers of gun ammunition to collect a thumbprint and other information from purchasers. Schwarzenegger said no other state collects information on ammunition sales.

Schwarzenegger also vetoed a bill that sought to expand the liability of people who store guns. The governor said the bill “does more to confuse an already complicated area of the law than to protect children.”

However, he signed bills that make it illegal to publicly display BB and toy guns that are not visibly distinguished from real guns -- such as with bright paint -- and create an entertainment firearms permit for guns used as props in movies and plays. A related bill he signed requires the state Department of Justice to check whether people seeking the return of firearms seized by law enforcement are actually eligible to possess guns.


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