Orange County’s only needle exchange program remains closed as it continues to fight the county and three area cities in court. Orange County and three out of the four cities where the program proposed to operate filed a lawsuit against the program back in August.
Orange County Needle Exchange’s website still says the non-profit is planning to reopen since it received authorization from the California Department of Public Health to provide public health services throughout the county.
Orange County is not immune to the rampant opioid epidemic the rest of the United States is experiencing. The mobile syringe exchange program provides a harm reduction approach for its clients by exchanging clean syringes for used ones. Its volunteers, which include medical professionals and medical students, offered their services in the Santa Ana Civic Center for a few months last year.
The initial permit allowed volunteers to help people for two hours each week. At its busiest point, the program's volunteers helped an average of 300 people each time the exchange was open. However, the city of Santa Ana denied them a permit after it received complaints from the community reporting dirty needles being littered around the area.
“People are going to use drugs and we accept that reality. We meet them where they are at in order to minimize the harm that comes with them with the long-term goal of keeping them alive,” said Dallas Augustine, OC Needle Exchange Program spokeswoman and board member.
Volunteers also handed out sterile water, tourniquets, condoms and directed clients to other programs available to them.
“The intent to help people is well-meaning, but when you weigh that to the danger to many more people, I don’t think it’s a close call,” said Supervisor Andrew Do.
Some people are worried about the exchange coming into their neighborhood and what it could bring with them. However, there are others who attribute becoming clean and sober to mobile syringe programs.
For Alex Smith, it was a brief interaction at a mobile exchange in Ventura County that led her toward recovery from her heroin addiction and to six years of sobriety.
“The first thing I remember was this girl. She looked at me and smiled. She asked me how I was. That was the first time a stranger had smiled at me in so long,” said Alex Smith.
At her lowest point, Smith was admitted into a hospital for a bad bacterial infection, MRSA, from reusing dirty needles which caused sores to cover her face and body.
“I didn’t care. Those things didn’t cross my mind. I didn’t think of my future,” said Smith.
Smith went into treatment with support from her family and said her life has changed. Smith graduated from Chapman University and is now enrolled in a Master’s program. She works at a company that helps care for people with intellectual disabilities.
“I’ve been able to cultivate relationships with my family and friends. I have a mom and sister that mean everything to me and I get to have them back,” said Smith.
She said she knows she’s the exception and not everyone will be able to cross over to the other side to recovery. However, Smith believes everyone deserves a chance to receive help to change their lives.
For more information on the OC Needle Exchange Program, please visit: http://ocnep.org