The recent approval of a syringe services program in the Yuba-Sutter area has prompted local government leaders to take steps toward banning any kind of needle exchange program.
Yuba Sutter Harm Reduction and Community Outreach (YSHRCO) received approval from the California Department of Public Health in May to operate three sites in the region that would distribute harm reduction kits that include syringes and safe injection material in a Sharps container that encourages safe disposal. Two of the three sites will be mobile and will provide finger stick testing for hepatitis C and HIV. Confirmatory testing will be available at the third site at Harmony Health in Linda. The two mobile sites will be available once a week and services at Harmony Health will be available twice a week.
The YSHRCO program coordinator said its program will be unique from others in California in that a unique identifier will be used for each patient to maintain the person’s privacy and track syringes in the region.
“There is a strong community benefit to programs designed to reduce further danger to the health of those already addicted to injection drug use, but those programs have to be done correctly,” said Bi-County Health Officer Dr. Phuong Luu via email. “Taking drugs using contaminated needles is the perfect storm for spreading serious diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C, which is why broader efforts to address such addictions commonly use needle exchange programs.”
She said it is critical that there is greater community involvement in setting up programs like this.
“I am working with Yuba Sutter Harm Reduction and Community Outreach to find a positive way forward that ultimately enhances the safety of the Yuba-Sutter community using a comprehensive approach,” Luu said.
Illicit drug use in the Yuba-Sutter area is a real issue and concern, and drugs that require needles play a part in that problem, said Yuba County Media and Community Relations Coordinator Russ Brown.
“Needles will, from time to time, turn up in public places such as sidewalks, parks, and buildings,” Brown said via email. “They are more likely to be seen in areas that are not heavily traveled.”
Those opposing the program point to issues in areas such as Chico where a syringe program has been operating.
On June 23, the Sutter County Board of Supervisor unanimously approved an ordinance that bans needle exchange programs in the county.
“There’s no reason to even think about making it easier for a drug addict to have needles, period,” said Sutter County Board Chairman Ron Sullenger.
Yuba City will be voting to approve a similar ordinance on July 7 and Marysville will be considering introducing an ordinance at its council meeting on July 7. Yuba City Mayor Shon Harris said he is sympathetic to the plight of those dealing with substance abuse in the community but said approving a syringe service program is not in the best interest of the city at-large. He personally witnessed a person using a needle in the restroom at Sam Brannan Park on Gray Avenue. He said the problem of syringe litter is enough to prevent people from going to certain places in the city.
Harris said he opposes the program because it contributes to a problem already present and it is not a true needle exchange program.
“That’s a nice way of saying, ‘we’re going to hand out syringes,’” Harris said.
SAYLove founder Jeff Stephens said volunteers with the organization go to clean up different areas in Yuba-Sutter and find needles in homeless camps and areas where garbage is dumped. He said it’s not common to find needles in areas outside of the encampments. One of his worries is that if the syringe program goes forward the discarded needles will become more prevalent in places where the general public spends time.
“My big concern is to my volunteers,” Stephens said.
He doesn’t support the program and said on Thursday that he would tour Chico to get a better sense of the impact its syringe services program had on the city.
“I don’t believe that’s the answer,” Stephens said.
Law enforcement perspective
All law enforcement agencies who responded said they deal with used needles in some capacity.
Yuba City Police Department Lt. Sam Escheman said officers come across syringes on a daily basis.
“We recommend the public not handle these needles if they come across them in public due to the risk of possible exposure to communicable diseases,” Escheman said. “...YCPD does not support a needle distribution program.”
Sutter County Sheriff’s deputies usually deal with needles when in contact with individuals who have them in their possession. It is rare for them to see needles when they are out on patrol, according to Captain Chad Niswonger. Occasionally, the department will get a call from a member of the public who found a needle, but it is not common.
Niswonger said the program could be helpful or could make the problem worse.
“It depends on the people being served by it,” Niswonger said.
The Yuba County Sheriff’s Office comes across discarded syringes mostly in transient camps in the county and is something deputies deal with in their regular course of duty, according to spokesperson Leslie Carbah.
“We don’t condone illegal drug use but recognize that dirty syringe use and litter is a public health risk,” Carbah said via email. “At this time, we haven’t really been a part of the review or discussion concerning the CDPH program so it would be premature to offer an opinion.”
Luu said the Yuba-Sutter area has active drug intervention, counseling and recovery programs available for individuals and families that are dealing with substance abuse.
“Both private and public clinics as well as Yuba-Sutter behavioral health provide these vital interventions and treatments,” Luu said. “Local law enforcement and the courts are an important part of addressing drug addiction, as the intervention programs are seen as an important solution.”
The program coordinator said telling people to stop using drugs does not work. She said increased access to mental health services, more outpatient and inpatient treatment facilities that take Medi-Cal, increased funding for treatment, increased access to affordable housing, and increasing the amount of healthcare providers in the area who can prescribe medication, assisted therapy and provide counseling are needed to fight the problem.
Sullenger connected the issue of substance abuse to the homelessness problem and the county’s hands being tied when it comes to enforcing ordinances against encampments.
“I think typically it’s a problem that we try to sweep under the rug,” Sullenger said.
Cleaning up the areas where the homeless congregate is a way to start dealing with the problem, he said.
Harris said Yuba City would be open to work with county and state agencies on programs to address the greater issue. He said those running the program should be providing services to help treat those suffering from addiction rather than using “syringes as a carrot.”