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Judge wants to hear more evidence before ruling on request to prevent O.C. needle exchange

Judge wants to hear more evidence before ruling on request to prevent O.C. needle exchange
The Orange County Needle Exchange Program handed out syringes at the Santa Ana Civic Center, pictured, before its permit was denied in January. (File Photo)

The fate of a push to prevent a hotly contested mobile needle-exchange service proposed for specified areas of Orange County, including Costa Mesa, remains up in the air after a San Diego County Superior Court judge Monday directed the opposing sides to return next month for an evidence hearing.

Judge Joel Wohlfeil said that hearing — scheduled for Nov. 13 — will focus on the staffing proposed for the Orange County Needle Exchange Program and whether the operation could safely recover and dispose of used syringes and other waste.

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“I’m a little concerned that I haven’t yet had the time to go through everything and appreciate the nuances of your respective positions,” Wohlfeil told attorneys Monday in San Diego.

Wohlfeil said he’s confident that after the upcoming hearing he’ll have the information necessary to rule on a motion that attorneys representing Orange County, the county Flood Control District and the cities of Costa Mesa, Anaheim and Orange filed in August seeking a preliminary injunction to keep the state-approved needle exchange from operating.

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The motion, which is part of those agencies’ lawsuit against the program, cited public health and safety concerns and asserted that the proposed exchange would “lead to tens of thousands of dirty needles throughout the county, creating a significant public nuisance with serious risk of injury to the county’s residents and water quality.”

“It is our position that the application here is extremely deficient and vague, particularly in the area of the proper disposal of syringes,” Rebecca Leeds, an attorney for Orange County, said Monday.

However, state Deputy Attorney General Chara Crane said the proposal was subject to a lengthy public review and comment period and that the California Department of Public Health’s approval was “crafted specifically to address the needle litter concerns.”

Officials with the Orange County Needle Exchange Program, a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization, have said they plan to delay launching until after the legal proceedings.

“Ultimately, we’re here to work with the community and for the community, not against them,” Kelley Butler, a steering committee member for the program, said in an earlier interview.

She added that program officials “are just really excited and equipped and ready to work with law enforcement, elected officials and other community stakeholders to arrive at the best situation to treat all residents equally.”

The Department of Public Health approved an application in July to allow the program to operate for two years in certain areas of Costa Mesa as well as Anaheim, Orange and Santa Ana.

Advocates of such programs say they are intended to help prevent the spread of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C by providing clean needles and other supplies to intravenous drug users.

However, the state’s decision incited immediate and fierce blowback from residents and elected officials in the cities where the program is proposed.

In Costa Mesa, officials swiftly condemned the idea and said the chosen operating area in the city — on West 17th Street between Whittier Avenue and the city boundary with Banning Ranch — was inappropriate because of its proximity to homes, schools and businesses.

Along with joining the lawsuit, the Costa Mesa City Council adopted an urgency ordinance prohibiting the establishment or operation of needle exchanges anywhere in the city.

The Orange County Needle Exchange Program used to operate out of the Santa Ana Civic Center and was the only one of its kind in the county. However, Santa Ana denied its permit in January, citing an increase in the number of discarded syringes in the area.

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