It didn’t take long for an Anaheim town hall meeting, hosted by the Orange County Needle Exchange Program (OCNEP) on August 23, to devolve into vicious arguing. OCNEP’s mission at the town hall was to build a rapport with the communities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Santa Ana and Orange where the needle exchange will be operational; and to offer a public forum for questions about the new needle exchange mobile unit to be answered. OCNEP planned to give any member of the public two minutes to ask questions, but the public had other plans.
Santa Monica police officer (and Stone Cold Steve Austin look alike) Shaun Dove was the first to speak. He opened the ceremonies by shouting, “All law enforcement don’t support this bill!” His response was met by resounding applause throughout the crowd of roughly 150 people. Dove continued by citing crime statistics in cities with operational needle exchange programs. His argument was that bringing a needle exchange to Anaheim would increase crime by opening up the community to an influx of drug addicts and homeless people.
Nearly every other argument proposed on Thursday was structured similarly. The crux of the argument follows the, “If you build it, they will come” logic, and ignores the fact that Anaheim already has an abundance of drug addicted residents. More importantly, this logic neglects the facts from an OC Health Care Agency (OCHCA) report which states that Anaheim experienced the most opioid related emergency room visits of any OC city between 2010 and 2015 (782 in total), and experienced a 45 percent increase in opioid related ER visits in that time.
The best argument was from a former Anaheim law enforcement officer who worked narcotics and gangs for 19 of his 20 years on the force (the officer wished to remain anonymous for his safety). While searching a man in the 1980s, the former cop was stuck with a syringe. It was the height of the HIV epidemic, and the fear wrought by the incident changed his life. After years of testing, the officer found he was clear of any disease. Still, he does see parallels between his experience and the experience of Santa Ana cops who were stuck with syringes discarded around the Civic Center and the Santa Ana library while the last needle exchange was running.
“The problem is,” he said, “they don’t have a program to dispose of the hundreds of syringes they collect.” (For clarification, he was misguided in this thought. OCNEP will be incinerating the needles it collects)
Even though he is afraid that he, his grandson, or another member of the community could be stuck by discarded needles, the officer has sympathy for the needle exchange and its patrons. Members of his family have been addicted to drugs and even died of drug overdoses. He sees the needle exchange as a way to mitigate the spread of disease and infection, but feels that it may need to be adjusted to maximize safety. In the end, the reason he came to the forum was to, “Find out all the pros and cons. I don’t have all the answers, and I want to be fair.”
Board members from the OCNEP refuted most of the arguments thrown against them. They would be responsible for cleaning up the supplies, they said, and there is no causal relationship between an increase in crime and a functioning needle exchange.
“Syringes are not an addictive substance,” said Dallas Augustine, board member for OCNEP and UCI PhD. student studying criminology. Augustine, who grew up in Placentia, said the needle exchange was simply meant to mitigate the spread of disease, and that drugs in the community were the real problem.
OCNEP board member Kelly Butler, a UCI medical student, said she became involved because she doesn’t “want people coming into the ER who could spread diseases that could be prevented.” Butler also said the opioid epidemic was the real problem, and said that a “needle exchange is not the only piece to solving the epidemic. We just want to prevent the spread of disease.”
Butler says having a needle exchange is like teaching sex-ed in school: Kids will have sex regardless of whether you teach them about it or not. Therefore, it’s better to teach them about the spread of disease to help prevent infections.
Ultimately, the problem at Thursday’s forum was that members from the OCNEP and the public weren’t arguing about the same thing. The public wanted to keep their city safe by keeping the needle exchange out. To them, the needle exchange was the problem because they believed it would attract more drug addicts to their city. The OCNEP saw the opioid crisis and the spread of disease as the problem, and felt that they would benefit Anaheim by helping prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis.
Wherever you stand on the needle exchange, here are some pertinent statistics to the arguments. According to the OCHCA, the 4,012 opioid related hospitalizations in OC between 2011 and 2015 cost an estimated $133 million. Of those patients, only 41 percent had insurance, which means the medical cost was transferred to taxpayers. Anaheim experienced an average of 7.1 opioid related deaths per year between 2011 and 2015, and had the most overdose deaths in OC in that time. Costa Mesa, meanwhile, averaged 11.6 deaths per year, which was the third highest rate behind Laguna Beach (13.7) and Dana Point (11.7). OCNEP will be dispensing the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone free of charge, and they hope this will reduce these rates.
Data from the OCHCA also shows that Anaheim had the third most cases of HIV in OC (300.8 for every 100k people). Santa Ana experienced the second most cases (429.5 for every 100k people), and Laguna Beach had the highest rates (857.6). According to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) OC saw a 201.2 percent increase in chronic hepatitis C between 2011 and 2015. That rate of increase in that time was higher than rates in Pasadena, Los Angeles, and Long Beach. Orange County is also one of the largest counties in the US without a needle exchange, and experts believe this directly contributed the the rates of disease.
OCNEP board member, and UCI medical student Nathan Birnbaum believes the needle exchange will directly reduce these rates of disease. “When you look at how intravenous drug use connects to HIV,” he said, “about 9 percent of HIV cases in the county are attributed to intravenous drug use. But, in Santa Ana, 15% of infections are caused by intravenous use.”
“In order to be effective, OCNEP needs to move around,” Birnbaum told me in an interview with Voice of OC. “Depriving intravenous drug users who are at high risk of infectious disease is dangerous. By shutting the needle exchange down, the city has made it more likely for people to litter their needles.”
OCNEP will be hosting another town hall on September 4 at 5pm at the Delhi Center in Santa Ana.
For more on the political angle, click below