By Sarah Starr

Recognizing the many daily needle users in Santa Cruz county, Assemblymember John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) has introduced a bill to increase funding for public syringe exchange programs.

On Jan. 25, Laird introduced Assembly Bill 110, which would make clear that local public agencies may use state HIV prevention and education funds to support authorized clean needle and syringe exchange programs. The bill also grants local agencies the authority to purchase sterile hypodermic needles and syringes for authorized clean needle and syringe exchange programs.

AB 110, co-sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance Network and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, continues an effort that was previously shot down. Laird proposed Assembly Bill 1597 in 2005, which would have allowed funding to be given to local pharmacies to set up a needle exchange program, as well as required them to drop off the old syringes for new sterile ones. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Nikos Leverenz, director of the Drug Policy Alliance Network office in Sacramento, feels that AB 110 would be beneficial to the state.

“There are 10 cities in California that we have marked as areas that could benefit from this program, the No. 1 being Fresno,” Leverenz said.

For Santa Cruz AIDS prevention workers and volunteers, the bill’s timing is critical. The Santa Cruz Needle Exchange Program (SCNEP), which runs through the Santa Cruz AIDS Project (SCAP), has been dealing with hindering legislation and finances. Many needle exchange programs around the state would benefit from the program as well, where needle sharing is estimated to result in more than 1,000 new HIV infections each year, and many used syringes have no proper place of disposal.

Greg*, a visitor at the center, is a 32 year-old local who sees the importance of the SCNEP.

“This program has been a positive experience for me, and given me not only access to clean syringes, but even more information on HIV in general,” Greg said.

Concerns have risen in fear that Gov. Schwarzenegger will also veto this bill as he did the last. Many, however, feel that this bill stands a better chance of passing than the last. Since the previous bill was proposed around the time of re-elections, many feel that Gov. Schwarzenegger would not be afraid to support this program for fear of being “soft on drugs.”

In an official note to the assembly, Gov. Schwarzenegger said that “This bill would make state funding for HIV prevention and education available for the purchase of needles, potentially limiting funding for other prevention and education activities.”

Stephanie Columbo, a second-year health science major at UC Santa Cruz, feels that precautionary education is the most effective measure.

“We can’t prevent people from doing these drugs, so the best solution is to help them practice it safely and inform of the risks.” Columbo said. “It’s the same as sex education, which also looks to help reduce the risk of HIV.”