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North County leaders oppose needle exchange

The County of San Diego has expanded access to sterile needles, drug paraphernalia and drug testing kits in an effort known as "harm reduction." But some local leaders are taking a stance against the expansion in the North County. KPBS reporter Tania Thorne has the story.

San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond and five city leaders sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom Wednesday in opposition to existing and proposed needle exchange and drug paraphernalia distribution programs in North County.

Along with Desmond, who represents District 5, the letter was signed by Mayors Keith Blackburn of Carlsbad, Rebecca Jones of San Marcos, Dane White of Escondido and John Franklin of Vista. Ryan Keim, Oceanside deputy mayor, also signed the letter.


The letter was also addressed to the state Department of Public Health and San Diego County government.

It states that county government "has recently made it clear that it intends to distribute thousands of needles using state funds under the guise of a `harm reduction' program. The only thing these programs do is further harm our communities stricken with substance-abuse disorders."

According to the letter, the program "admits outright not all needles distributed will be collected. Needles are already commonly found in our parks, beaches, waterways, canyons and sidewalks.


"Within one year, as many as 500,000 needles could be distributed in our region, without any mechanism in place to compel users into treatment," the leaders stated. "By giving out needles and drug paraphernalia, we are enabling and implicitly condoning illegal drug use without accountability or requirement for treatment."

The county's Health and Human Services Department did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The leaders said they wanted to help communities deal with the drug issue by providing overdose prevention education; Naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses; and behavioral health and social support services.

"While we understand and appreciate the attempt to help our vulnerable populations, needle exchange and associated programs are detrimental to neighborhoods and communities, and we are united against the implementation of these programs in North County," according to the letter.

Desmond and the five city leaders asked the county, state and nonprofits "to refrain from funding or providing needle exchange services in our cities and communities.

"Instead, we ask for your help in addressing the root causes of substance abuse, by providing prevention resources, education and treatment programs to encourage healthy change," according to the letter. "We insist on providing a hand up, not handouts that perpetuate illegal drug use. Together, we can help put people on a path to recovery and help end of the cycle of abuse."

Harm reduction advocates say communities that don’t have syringe service programs see an increase in diseases and syringe litter left behind.

"Because people do not have a safe place to dispose of it. They don't have the right equipment to dispose of it in, and they don't have organizations that are front facing and interacting with them on a very real way, every day," said Tara Stamos-Beusig, the founder of the Harm Reduction Coalition of San Diego.

She said the outreach workers with her organization build rapport with people through the syringe service programs, and are more likely to get them into treatment following that engagement.

"Syringe service programs and other harm reduction programs do reduce the risk to the individual. They also reduce the risk to the community," she said.

Stamos-Beusig encourages those who do not agree or understand harm reduction to ask the people doing the work or being impacted the most, "Give us a call to talk to somebody. Stop and have a conversation with the people on the streets in Oceanside, in San Marcos and Escondido and Vista, and have a conversation. Ask them what they need.... Those are the constituents of those districts as well."

In January 2021, the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 in favor of developing a needle exchange program, nullifying a 1997 board decision.

Desmond and his colleague Joel Anderson were the dissenting votes.

During that board meeting, Christian Ramers of Family Health Centers of San Diego said the program involved "a whole lot more than just exchanging needles."

"We are dealing with poverty, mental health and infectious diseases in a group that is very hard to reach and treat," he said.