Shuttering the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC) of Santa Cruz County’s syringe exchange program would increase the incidence of needle litter in the county and tie up invaluable public health resources needed to fight the spread of COVID-19 — and, what’s more, it would cost lives.
The pending lawsuit against the volunteer-run organization and the California Department of Public Health should be met with intense skepticism. Filed Dec. 2020, the suit primarily alleges that needle litter found in and around the county’s parks, beaches, and other public places merits environmental review of the HRC’s services under the California Environmental Quality Act.
Among the suit’s plaintiffs are sitting City Council Member Renee Golder, former Police Chief Kevin Vogel, registered nurse Melissa Freebairn, and the Grant Park Neighborhood Association Advocates.
These individuals claim to represent the concern that there are too many used needles discarded in the county’s public places. According to a 2019 survey conducted by the Santa Cruz County Public Health Department, 310 syringes with intact needles were found across more than two dozen locations in the City of Santa Cruz, Live Oak, and Felton over a two-week period in October of that year.
The conventional logic follows that the more needles organizations distribute, the more needle litter will be left about. Add to this the fact that the Santa Cruz HRC distributes needles based on need, not per needle received from clients, and it’s understandable why some people might think the HRC is contributing to the county’s needle litter problem.
But this simply isn’t true, both for reasons particular to the Santa Cruz HRC and to syringe exchange services in general.
Since its inception in May 2018, the Santa Cruz HRC consistently collects more needles than it distributes. HRC Safe Syringes Program Coordinator Dani Drysdale said that in 2019, between needles received from their clients directly and needle litter the group picked up, the HRC collected about 140,580 needles, compared to about 129,000 it distributed.
Though the Santa Cruz HRC opted against making its 2020 distribution and collection numbers public, Drysdale said the group’s pattern of collections well outpacing distribution remains true.
It’s also unclear if the lawsuit is an effort piloted by Santa Cruz locals. Though the plaintiffs are being primarily represented by ex-Santa Cruz mayor David Terrazas, the co-council to the group is Walt McNeill, a Nevada City lawyer who boasts a history of successful litigation against syringe exchange programs.
In August of last year, McNeill served as the co-council in a lawsuit filed against the North Valley Harm Reduction Coalition of Chico, CA, which ended in an out-of-court settlement and stripped the organization of its ability to distribute clean syringes.
This paints a portrait not of a legal council representing grassroots concerns, but of an activist lawyer launching legal torpedoes at any syringe exchange program he sees.
The stakes for challenging this litigation are high. Over 250 individuals rely on the services of the Santa Cruz HRC to obtain clean needles, a service vital to prevent the spread of diseases such as Hepatitis-C and AIDS.
Since the service is being challenged on the basis of California environmental law, a successful suit against the HRC wouldn’t necessarily spell the end of its syringe exchange program. However, such an outcome would embroil the service in a yearslong environmental review process, costing time and, crucially, lives.
For more information about the Santa Cruz County HRC, or to make a donation to the organization, visit https://www.harmreductioncoalitionofsantacruzcounty.com/home-1 .