Ban on needle exchanges in El Dorado County halted by judge as state lawsuit continues

El Dorado County cannot enforce its ban on programs that distribute clean syringes for now, a judge ruled Friday.

The ruling by El Dorado Superior Court Judge Gary S. Slossberg is the latest in an ongoing legal battle between the county and the state health officials over the ban on needle exchanges, which the California Department of Public Health contends oversteps state law.

The preliminary injunction temporarily keeps El Dorado officials from enforcing last year’s ban on such operations by the Board of Supervisors in unincorporated areas. A similar ordinance passed in Placerville, which is named in the suit, will be determined at a later date.

The decision doesn’t mean the fight between the state and county is over — a pending trial next year will determine whether the ordinance violated state law.

Since an original suit challenging El Dorado’s ordinance was filed by Attorney General Rob Bonta and CDPH lawyers in March, the county has counter-sued alleging that the state’s authorization of Sierra Harm Reduction Coalition to carry out such a program in the county has contributed to a rise in overdoses and jeopardized public safety.

Slossberg, in his ruling, did not offer an opinion on the case or the cross-complaint.

State law gives CDPH broad authority in approving the programs “notwithstanding any other law” to combat the “spread of HIV infection, viral hepatitis, and other potentially deadly bloodborne infections.” The law also directs state officials to work with county officials “balance the concerns of law enforcement with the public health benefits.”

Supervisor Wendy Thomas, chair of the board, wrote that the state’s lawsuit had bullied the county out of enacting the ordinance, which she said “protects children and adults in our communities.”

“In a state teeming with homelessness, crime, drug addiction and overdose deaths, how dare they sue us in defense of ‘public health?’ Thomas said when the March suit was filed. “The first principle of medicine is ‘Do No Harm,’ and we have local data that proves that a syringe exchange program has indeed caused much harm in El Dorado County.”

County supervisors passed an ordinance in December that would stop new safe syringe programs, or SSPs, from forming and halt operations of existing ones. The ban reflected the position of many El Dorado leaders, including Sheriff Jeff Leikauf, who said that such programs have made crime, drug use and waste more unmanageable.

The state health officials fought back against the ban by filing a suit against the county and Placerville. The state contends that local jurisdictions cannot override state law, which allows the programs to operate. California’s Health and Safety Code exempts any harm reduction staff engaged in the “distribution of hypodermic needles or syringes to participants in clean needle and syringe exchange projects” from prosecution.

Needle exchange programs are one part of addressing drug use and addiction through harm reduction, a practice of abating the dangers of drug addiction without requiring abstinence from a substance. State officials have embraced the evidence-based practice of providing drug users with clean needles so they are less likely to contract and spread diseases like HIV and hepatitis C by sharing needles.

Sierra Harm Reduction, a nonprofit group, has been distributing clean needles and other services in the El Dorado area since it was approved by CDPH in 2020.

The injunction ordered by Slossberg will remain in place until a ruling is made. The two sides return to court to set a trial date in November; arguments will be heard the countersuit in August.

In a statement to the Los Angeles Times about the ruling, El Dorado District Attorney Vern Pierson said “we will propose narrowing the ordinance” in an effort to allow the county to renew enforcement.