California sues El Dorado County, Placerville for banning needle exchange programs

The California Department of Public Health is suing El Dorado County and the city of Placervillefor banning needle exchange programs, defying state law and policies.

The state has challenged the actions by both the county’s Board of Supervisors and the Placerville City Council to stop the safe syringe programs, or SSPs. The lawsuit, filed in early March in El Dorado Superior Court, not only spotlights the debate about the effectiveness of the programs but California’s assertion that local jurisdictions are not empowered to overrule state law.

Specifically, the justice department is arguing that because the state has already allowed SSPs to exist, counties and cities have no authority to ban them.

Filed by Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office and CDPH attorneys, the March 5 lawsuit states that the ordinance banning SSPs “directly contravenes” a state law that amended the state’s Health and Safety Code to exempt any harm reduction staff engaged in the “distribution of hypodermic needles or syringes to participants in clean needle and syringe exchange projects” from prosecution.

But the recent actions in El Dorado County reflect the position of opponents of SSPs, such as Sheriff Jeff Leikauf, who says that they increase drug use and crime, and enable addicts to continue to use.

“Don’t come into our county and double down on your failed policy,” El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson said in a news release.

Public health officials, however, support such programs, noting they have proven in some places to curb cases of HIV and hepatitis.

What is an exchange program?

SSPs allow drug users safely to discard needles or other drug paraphernalia and curb blood-borne diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis, that can spread through intravenous drug use. Harm reduction centers also offer addiction treatment resources and overdose prevention services.

The California Legislature has historically supported the programs, and existing language in the state’s Health and Safety Code provides the groundwork for the recent lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, to qualify as an SSP, a harm reduction center must provide (directly, or through referral):

Drug abuse treatment services.

HIV or hepatitis screening.

Hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccination.

Screening for sexually transmitted infections.

Housing services for the homeless, for victims of domestic violence, or other similar housing services.

Services related to provision of education and materials for the reduction of sexual risk behaviors, including, but not limited to, the distribution of condoms.

The county’s actions

The county Board of Supervisors on Dec. 5 approved the ordinance 4-0 to prohibit any new syringe services programs and effectively halt services provided by the Sierra Harm Reduction Coalition.

Supervisor Brooke Laine, who represents South Lake Tahoe and most of the county’s southeast tier, abstained from the vote.

The Placerville City Council followed the board’s lead, voting in February to pass a similar measure.

El Dorado County Board Chair Wendy Thomas, who represents Placerville, on Thursday called the lawsuit “abhorrent.”

“The health and safety of El Dorado County residents is the sacred duty of the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors and our law enforcement partners, and I am disgusted and appalled that the state of California intends to use its bully pulpit to override our local control and authority to enact an ordinance which protects children and adults in our communities,” she said in a statement.

“In a state teeming with homelessness, crime, drug addiction, and overdose deaths, how dare they sue us in defense of ‘public health’? 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. We will protect our community and I will always support measures which prioritize and safeguard the well-being of the citizens of El Dorado County.”

She said she and the board intend to respond to lawsuit at the next board meeting, April 2.