Costa Mesa passes urgency ordinance barring needle exchanges in the city

Needle-exchange programs are now banned in Costa Mesa — for the time being, at least — after the City Council adopted an urgency ordinance Tuesday prohibiting the establishment and operation of such services anywhere in the city “for the protection of the public health, safety and welfare.”

The 4-0 vote, with Councilman Jim Righeimer absent, is meant to give city staff additional time to study issues related to such programs and examine potential new regulations governing where and how they can operate.

The moratorium is effective for 45 days but can be extended with a future council vote.

“The first thing we have to do is identify, A., whether there’s a problem and, B., if there is a problem, what’s the scope of the problem and … what are some possible solutions,” said Councilman John Stephens.

The urgency ordinance is part of Costa Mesa’s double-barreled response to a California Department of Public Health decision last week to OK a proposal from the Orange County Needle Exchange Program to distribute syringes and other supplies in the city’s Westside, as well as in parts of Anaheim, Orange and Santa Ana, for the next two years.

The council also voted last week to join Orange County in a lawsuit seeking to stop the mobile needle-exchange service, which would operate in Costa Mesa on West 17th Street between Whittier Avenue and the city boundary from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays.

Supporters of such programs say they are intended to help prevent the spread of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C among intravenous drug users by providing clean needles. But city officials say the proposed operating area in Costa Mesa is inappropriate, especially given its proximity to homes, businesses and schools.

After learning of the proposal earlier this year, Costa Mesa police, city staff and council members sent letters and made comments detailing their concerns that the program could attract drug users to the community, potentially compromise the recovery of those living in local sober-living homes and pose a threat to public safety.

“It was hard to believe that the state would do something so stupid, but I guess we should expect that from our state,” said Mayor Pro Tem Allan Mansoor. “I’m fully supportive of this [ordinance]. There’s no way we’re going to allow this in Costa Mesa.”

The needle-exchange program used to operate out of the Santa Ana Civic Center and was the only one of its kind in Orange County. However, that city opted to scrap it in January, citing an increase in the number of discarded syringes in the area.

Though the state’s approval was effective starting this week, officials of the Orange County Needle Exchange Program say they will delay launching it until September at the earliest.

Dallas Augustine, a member of the needle exchange’s board of directors, said the nonprofit hopes to meet with city and county representatives “to discuss our plans, receive feedback and work collaboratively” as well as schedule town hall gatherings “to meet with community members, hear their concerns, answer their questions and dispel any myths surrounding harm reduction and our program.”

“We continue to offer to work together with local officials,” Augustine wrote in an email Monday. “However, to do so, we need local officials to respond to our outreach efforts. Especially during election season, it is easy to villainize our already marginalized and stigmatized clients and, by proxy, OCNEP. However, we do not want to fight and, instead, continue to ask for open dialogue and cooperation.”

Costa Mesa Mayor Sandy Genis questioned why the city was chosen as a location for the program, saying “there has been no empirical data presented anywhere that indicates that this is needed in Costa Mesa any more than anywhere else in Orange County.”

Councilwoman Katrina Foley lamented that issues related to addiction have become increasingly common on recent council agendas.

“Ten years ago we would be sitting up here and we would be debating how many trees do we need to put in the parking lot, how wide should the setbacks be,” she said. “Boy, has this community changed, and we’ve got to find some solutions.”

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