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California county votes to sue over mobile needle exchange

August 3, 2018

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A Southern California county on Friday said it will sue the state over its decision to allow a mobile needle exchange program aimed at curbing disease among drug users.

Orange County supervisors voted unanimously to sue to try to block the program over concerns it will lead to more syringes strewn through parks, libraries and sidewalks.

“This drug needle giveaway is a serious threat to public safety,” Board Chairman Andrew Do said.

The move comes after California’s Department of Public Health authorized a mobile unit to offer a needle exchange in four county locations starting on Monday.

The issue has sparked intense debate in the county of 3.2 million people and has supporters and opponents both claiming public health is on their side.

The Orange County Needle Exchange Program used to operate in Santa Ana, but it was shut down this year after city officials denied a permit. The program then sought state approval for a mobile unit making stops in Santa Ana, Orange, Costa Mesa and Anaheim.

The state’s Department of Public Health approved the exchange to help reduce the risk of HIV and Hepatitis C transmission among drug users. Under the program, people who inject drugs can get clean syringes, dispose of old ones and get tested for HIV and Hepatitis C.

Mahan Naeim, a member of the program’s steering committee, said they won’t start until September to have time to collaborate with local officials. The program helps reduce litter by giving drug users a place to bring old needles and an incentive to do so, he said.

“We have a very trusted legal team that is working hard on this issue, but we would much rather engage in dialogue and conversation than litigation,” he said.

Critics say the exchange will lead to more discarded syringes. Thousands of needles were recovered from a riverbed homeless encampment earlier this year, and needles have also been spotted at a Santa Ana library.

The exchange will operate a hotline to field reports of discarded syringes and help clean up around mobile service areas, according to the state.

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