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Court ruling blocks proposed needle-exchange program

Court ruling blocks proposed needle-exchange program
Worries about litter from syringes and needles prompted several agencies to push for a court injunction to block the Orange County Needle Exchange Program. (File Photo / Los Angeles Times)

A San Diego County Superior Court judge issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday blocking a state-approved mobile needle-exchange service from operating as proposed in Costa Mesa and three other Orange County cities.

Judge Joel Wohlfeil’s decision represents a victory for Orange County, the county Flood Control District and the cities of Costa Mesa, Anaheim and Orange, which teamed up in an effort to stop the Orange County Needle Exchange Program.

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The service also was proposed for Santa Ana, which didn’t join the legal fight.

In pushing for the injunction, the plaintiffs cited public health and safety concerns and asserted the program 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.”

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“We are pleased the court agreed with the city’s position regarding the public health hazard the needle exchange would have posed to Costa Mesa,” Mayor Sandy Genis said in a statement. “This ruling is a victory to all who work, live and play in this city and fortifies our commitment to the highest level of public safety.”

Councilwoman Katrina Foley, the city’s incoming mayor, added that Costa Mesa “vigorously fought to ensure the safety of its citizens by not having needles distributed with no accounting for the dangerous needle waste.”

The exchange used to operate out of the Santa Ana Civic Center, where it was the only one of its kind in the county. But officials there denied its permit in January, citing an increase in the number of discarded syringes in the area.

“From plaintiffs’ perspective, the inadequacy of OCNEP’s staff to safely recover and dispose of used syringes and sharps waste from all of its participants, as well as the corresponding harm to the communities in which OCNEP distributes the exchange needles, undermines public safety, a goal with which reasonable people agree,” Wohlfeil wrote in his decision.

Dallas Augustine — a board member for the needle exchange — said Tuesday afternoon that officials of the nonprofit, volunteer-run program hadn’t yet had a chance to discuss the ruling.

“We are very disappointed in the outcome and believe in the right to safety, health and life for all members of our Orange County community,” Augustine wrote in an email.

Supporters 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. Even Wohlfeil noted in his decision that “defendants have presented substantial evidence to support the social utility” of the program.

But Wohlfeil also noted “the irony of the precautions OCNEP takes in admonishing its volunteers not to handle the needles and the hazards of needle stick injuries on the one hand and defendants’ desire to minimize the harm to plaintiffs’ residents ... who inadvertently encounter syringe litter.”

“The public safety of our residents comes first,” Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do said in a statement. “We fought to make sure our sidewalks, parks and libraries did not become hazardous waste sites. ... Drug addicts dump their dirty needles all over our community, putting our kids at risk.”

The California Department of Public Health approved an application in July to allow the program to distribute needles and other supplies for two years in specified areas of Costa Mesa, Anaheim, Orange and Santa Ana. The Costa Mesa operation would be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays along West 17th Street between Whittier Avenue and the city boundary with Banning Ranch.

Costa Mesa officials have continually contended that the program could attract additional drug users to the community, undermine the recovery of residents in local sober-living homes and pose safety threats to the public or law enforcement.

Along with joining the legal fight against the program, the Costa Mesa City Council adopted an urgency ordinance in August prohibiting the establishment or operation of needle exchanges anywhere in the city for 45 days, citing “the protection of the public health, safety and welfare.”

The council later extended that moratorium, which is now in place through Aug. 5.

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