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Costa Mesa Planning Commission backs making local needle exchange ban permanent

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A Costa Mesa city official pointed to the number of used hypodermic needles swept from the Santa Ana River bed after the county cleared out a homeless encampment last year to illustrate concerns about allowing a needle exchange program to operate in the city.
(File Photo)

Despite some concerns that the justification was flimsy, the Costa Mesa Planning Commission agreed Monday that the city should make its ban on needle exchange programs permanent.

The prohibition, which has been in place since August under an urgency ordinance, will now head to the City Council for review.

The rationale for the restriction centers on Costa Mesa already being a substance abuse recovery hotspot, city staff told the commission.

“Our concerns and our study of this is that bringing a clean-needle exchange program to Costa Mesa carries a risk of undermining the efforts of both the sober-living community and the city,” said Barry Curtis, the city’s economic and development services director.

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The commission voted 6-1 to codify the ban, but it wasn’t immediately convinced. Commissioner Kedarious Colbert, who cast the dissenting vote, pressed Curtis for scholarly research backing up the city’s assumptions.

Curtis said staff didn’t have any but that the risk was obvious.

“I think it’s pretty self-apparent that introducing needle exchange programs in proximity to sober-living and recovery homes is introducing a complexity to that process that … in discussions with some of the members of that community, we believe, is counterproductive to the goal of that community,” he said.

The existing ban was put in place in response to the California Department of Public Health’s approval of a proposal from the Orange County Needle Exchange Program to distribute syringes and other supplies on West 17th Street between Whittier Avenue and the city boundary, as well as in parts of Anaheim, Orange and Santa Ana. Orange and Anaheim also have banned such programs.

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Costa Mesa is part of an ongoing lawsuit seeking to stop the mobile needle exchange service. The Orange County Needle Exchange Program filed a countersuit against Costa Mesa, Orange and Anaheim in June, claiming their bans conflict with California law allowing needle exchanges to operate anywhere in the state.

Supporters of such programs say they can help prevent the spread of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C among intravenous drug users by providing clean needles.

No representatives of the needle exchange program or the addiction recovery industry spoke during Monday’s meeting.

Commission Vice Chairman Jeffrey Harlan said the rationale for firming up the ban was “skimpy.”

“The fact that the reasoning is based on a presumed protection of the sober-living community may be true,” he said. “Without having some evidence from them or some testimony, I can’t really sign off on the idea that it necessarily undermines their efforts.”

Despite some trepidation about the city’s research, Commissioner Carla Navarro Woods said she was clear about community concerns and asked whether the city had considered other measures like more sharps disposal sites.

Chairman Byron de Arakal said he has “no confidence at all that these needles will be returned” and wondered where drug users would go once they had their clean syringes.

“Do they just camp out until the high wears off, turn in the needle and go get another one?” he said.

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That also was a fear of city staff, which anticipated active drug users being drawn to Costa Mesa.

Colbert pointed out that the state health department said that isn’t likely, but Curtis was skeptical, citing the number of used hypodermic needles swept from the Santa Ana River bed after the county cleared out a sprawling homeless encampment there last year.

“We have disagreed with the state pretty much across the board on this issue,” Curtis said.

The City Council could take up the proposed code amendment as early as Aug. 6.

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