That’s all it takes to realize that distributing 10,000 clean needles a month to drug addicts in Santa Cruz is going to create a whole host of problems.
- Discarded and dirty used needles found on beaches and trails and floating in creeks, rivers and in the ocean.
- Addicts who, lost in their habit, show up to exchange needles then return to the streets, where they often commit crimes to support their expensive addictions.
- Outrage from a community that, while tolerant, increasingly is demanding answers from public officials about just why the illegal drug trade, with all its associated issues, continues to flourish in the city and outlying areas.
The complaints are having an effect. Tuesday night, three members of the Santa Cruz City Council, who serve on the city’s new Public Safety Committee, recommended the council approve a stringent plan to more closely monitor needle exchange programs.The recommendations are a step forward — and came after the council had already begun moving to regulate the local needle exchange program — even if overdue. And we expect to hear a strong defense of needle exchange programs from some public health officials, who have long stressed that it’s better to ensure addicts have access to clean needles than risk outbreaks of disease from dirty syringes and a lack of drug preparation equipment.
In a Sentinel special report published Sunday, reporter Stephen Baxter detailed how Street Outreach Supporters has been distributing 10,000 clean needles a month and other drug-use equipment. The organization, which uses a Santa Cruz County-provided van, also collects thousands of dirty needles from clients. But local residents, and Santa Cruz police, say that syringes and metal “cookers” (distributed by the exchange for helping addicts prepare heroin for injection) increasingly are being found in public places.
The needle exchange is a successor to the Santa Cruz Front Street drop-in program operated until 2009 by the Santa Cruz AIDS project, which provided a host of services for HIV positive people, but also drew criticism from police who said the exchange promoted illegal drug use in the city.
As funding dried up, the drop-in center was closed. Volunteers from the Street Outreach program, though, continued their needle exchange, which has operated, unregulated, for 20 years from a parking lot near Barson and Bixby streets, in an area often frequented by drug users. Street Outreach secured help from the county and the use of a county van for mobile needle exchange.
Street Outreach Supporters told the Sentinel that drug users often ditch used needles if they spot police and fear arrest. Others lose needles as a consequence of being homeless, or because of impairment from their addictions.
Drug users contacted by the Sentinel for our report said they try to collect dirty syringes and put them in special containers for collection by the needle exchange workers. In addition, needle drop boxes public restrooms in Santa Cruz were vandalized or ripped off walls and are now gone. The two remaining drop boxes are at the Santa Cruz and Watsonville bus stations; both boxes are often full of syringes.
While we applaud the three council members — David Terrazas, Cynthia Mathews and Pamela Comstock — who want the city to work with county health officials to increase oversight of needle exchanges, we also hope this indicates Santa Cruz is coming to terms with the unintended consequences of helping addicts in the name of public health.
Sadly, drug addicts consumed by their ever-present and active disease, don’t often consider these consequences.
But, increasingly, the rest of the community does.
This post is the Sentinel Editorial for Jan. 31, 2013.
Photo by Dan Coyro/Sentinel