It seems like a miraculous turnaround for the Orange County Needle Exchange Program (OCNEP) now that a San Diego judge has sided with the non-profit, volunteer organization in their lawsuit with the Orange County Board of Supervisors. During last Tuesday’s preliminary trial Judge Joel Wohlfeil did not grant the Board of Supervisors an injunction against the OCNEP and asked for more evidence to be presented by both parties in court on November 13.
Wohlfeil’s postponement is in some ways great news for the OCNEP, but is this trial all a bunch of BS?
The lawsuit against the OCNEP–backed by the Board of Supervisors and multiple OC cities–cities that the needle exchange never obtained permits as hazmat distributors. Claims from the preliminary statement of the lawsuit allege that the OCNEP is a medical waste generator in violation of the California Waste Management Act, and that the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act and the California Waste Management Act for granting the OCNEP the right to operate in OC without registering as a medical waste producer. The lawsuit goes on to acknowledge that when the OCNEP operated at the Santa Ana Civic Center last year they had the correct paperwork and permits.
But did the OC Board of Supervisors actually prevent OCNEP from registering as a medical waste producer?
“We applied for four permits and were denied. The funny thing is that the same people who could have granted us those permits are now the people that are suing us,” OCNEP boardmember Mahan Naeim told the Weekly. “The first time we heard about it was in the lawsuit. They didn’t tell the California Department of Public Health about the waste permits, and they never told us.”
The CDPH granted the OCNEP the right to operate at the end of July, ending the hiatus against the non-profit which began after the City of Santa Ana shut the OCNEP down in February 2018. Only the Board of Supervisors lawsuit prevented the OCNEP from dispensing free needles and naloxone in Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Orange, and Santa Ana. By denying the OCNEP’s permits and using the lack of permits against the organization, the Board of Supervisors has essentially cheated the system to achieve their goal of cock-blocking the lifesaving organization.
The Weekly reached out to the Board of Supervisors for comment, but we have yet to hear a response. However, a communications director for the Board of Supervisors did provide this statement to the Weekly:
“Regardless of whether the needle exchange has good intentions, it violates California Law. They need a health permit, which they do not have. The previous pilot program had a permit to operate in that specific area [referring to the Civic Center].”
For starters, the Board constantly harps on the fact that 14 thousand needles were removed from the Santa Ana riverbed, and alleges that allowing the OCNEP to return would mean an increase in needle litter. This seems reasonable until you realize that the OCNEP collected more needles than it distributed during its final months of operation. “Between October 2017 and January 2018 we distributed roughly 26 thousand needles, and in that same period we collected roughly 29 thousand,” said Naeim. The second flaw in that theory is the whole riverbed idea itself. The Board and OC residents continually cite the crisis Santa Ana Riverbed as a blatant example that the OCNEP will cause a litter of hazardous needles. Yet, according to the OCNEP, they were prohibited by authorities from entering the riverbed.
There’s a litany of other flaws with the current lawsuit and accusations against the OCNEP, not the least of which is the fact that 2018 is an election year and local politicians are using the fight against the OCNEP to prove their stance against vagrancy, junky-ism, and crime in the eyes of OC voters. If you want to know more about that, check these links Here Here Here
Unfortunately this is truly bittersweet for the OCNEP. Although the injunction against them was not granted, they are still unable to dispense supplies to prevent opioid overdoses and infections like HIV and hepatitis C.
“Legally speaking this is good news,” Naeim told the Weekly. “Legally speaking we feel pretty good, but as a person who’s objective is preventing overdose and stopping the spread of disease it’s not that great. I’d rather be able to give out needles this week.” I guess we’ll have to wait till November 13 to see where the saga heads. Until then we just hope the HIV and overdose rates–which are statistically astounding for a county of our size, according to the CDPH–will stagnate.