Written by SSDP Board member Lauren Mendelsohn
On February 11, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) gave final approval to Orange County Needle Exchange Program (OCNEP). This was a major victory, as OCNEP will be the first needle exchange in Orange County, California. Despite the area’s conservative political climate, there is a serious need for harm reduction services. The county has high rates of HIV and Hepatitis C, and certain cities, such as Santa Ana, where the program will be located, are affected by particularly high rates of these diseases. Furthermore, Orange County is the most populous county in California that has lacked a needle exchange – until now.
Needle exchange programs (NEPs) have numerous benefits. In addition to stopping the spread of blood-borne diseases by reducing the likelihood of shared needles, NEPs also provide a secure place to dispose of used needles, thus keeping them out of public areas where they pose a threat. NEPs also typically provide other health-related services either directly or via referral, such as brochures for local housing resources, condoms and safer sex information, HIV/STD testing, and naloxone.
In 2011, California passed a law creating a needle exchange certification program, whereby an organization could apply to CDPH and obtain state approval if certain requirements are met. Interestingly, despite the law being on the books for a few years, no group had yet gone through the state application process. OCNEP decided to be the first.
OCNEP was founded by a group of medical students at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) over a year ago. OCNEP reached out to the UCI Law SSDP chapter (which I led at the time) for assistance navigating the process, and I put them in touch with the UCI Law Community Economic Development (CED) Clinic. The CED clinic agreed to represent OCNEP in what became a unique collaboration between the UCI medical and law schools, with law students serving as legal counsel to the group of medical students leading this endeavor.
I had the pleasure of working with OCNEP through the CED clinic. Most of what myself and the other law students did consisted of legal research on NEP-related issues, including state/local preemption; zoning; civil liability related to operating a service-oriented nonprofit; criminal liability for providing paraphernalia (syringes) to minors; and how to properly dispose of collected sharps under California’s Medical Waste Management Act. We also created an NEP-specific “Know Your Rights” card, assisted OCNEP in obtaining insurance, and helped with other general business matters.
The process was long, frustrating, and not without roadblocks. Moreover, the contentious political nature of NEPs became apparent. For example, OCNEP had to modify its initial location for the exchange due to opposition from the local neighborhood association. This led to several months delay while a new location was sought out, new relationships were forged, and a new application prepared. Special meetings were also held with the police to discuss proper treatment of NEP clients and volunteers. Yet with dedication and hard work, these challenges were all overcome.
This experience has been rewarding since I’ve been able to use my passion for harm reduction along with my legal skills to help bring this program to fruition. Furthermore, both the medical students and law students involved are all advocates of drug policy reform and are supporters or members of SSDP. The UCI Law SSDP chapter will continue advertising the program and encouraging our members to volunteer, and the CED clinic will continue representing OCNEP should legal issues arise in the future.
OCNEP will begin operating on February 20. The exchange is located in the Santa Ana Civic Center in Santa Ana, CA, and will run every Saturday from 12pm-3pm. For more information about the program or to learn how you can volunteer, visit www.ocnep.org.