One step forward, two back. The day after a federal judge issued a groundbreaking order for an incarcerated man to retain access to methadone in Massachusetts, an injunction in California halted the operations of the Orange County Needle Exchange Program.
Orange County Needle Exchange Program (OCNEP) is a nonprofit that has operated since 2016. Originally based at Santa Ana civic center, it has faced constant opposition from local authorities. It was shut down in January 2018, when Santa Ana officials denied it a permit. Then in August 2018, the California Department of Public Health authorized it to operate a mobile syringe exchange program in Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange.
However, Orange County authorities sued OCNEP, blaming it for discarded syringes. On November 27, Judge Joel Wohlfeil—citing a lack of staff to pick up litter, despite praising the “selfless devotion” of OCNEP volunteers—ruled that “The seriousness of the harm outweighs the social utility of defendant’s conduct.”
Both that assertion and the resulting decision are objectionable.
“Published scientific data has shown that needle exchanges do not increase syringe litter,” stated an OCNEP press release on November 28. “Syringe litter was present in the county prior to OCNEP’s opening, and has continued to be present since we closed in January 2018.”
The statement also pointed out that there are far more constructive ways of addressing syringe litter have not been supported. “We proposed to ramp up our syringe recovery efforts in our application to the CA Department of Public Health … Public health and syringe litter are not mutually exclusive. They are closely intertwined and syringe litter would be better addressed through the creation of more public sharps containers, additional syringe exchange days, and increased collaboration between OCNEP and the county it serves.”
Operations will be suspended until a trial takes place in January 2019. As well as syringe exchange, OCNEP has been providing HIV and hepatitis C testing, health, housing and treatment referrals if requested, and other harm reduction supplies and information.
Orange County’s stance privileges marginal, debatable impacts on the wider public over the long-established lifesaving impact of syringe exchange programs on marginalized populations.
“We believe that the county’s legal actions provide clear evidence of its underlying position … the county is choosing to ignore the lives and health of people who suffer from opioid addiction, are experiencing homelessness, or are otherwise underserved,” stated OCNEP. “During this unprecedented opioid epidemic, counties across the country are collaborating with their local syringe exchanges to combat the problem. Rather than following their lead, Orange County officials have chosen to shut their only syringe exchange down.”
Both the legal battle and the broader struggle for harm reduction services against nimbyism will continue.
“To our clients, it has been an honor and privilege to serve you throughout these last two years,” stated OCNEP. “Your health matters. Your lives matter. You deserve the opportunity to live a healthy, safe life just as much as any other citizen of Orange County. We will continue to fight for you and for our ability to serve you with the dignity and respect that you deserve.”