California Gov Opens Up Needle Access

By Jennifer Matesa 10/12/11

Jerry Brown signs two bills to make sterile syringes easier to obtain in the Golden State, aiming to reduce the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.

Needle exchanges can now go legit. Photo via

California Governor Jerry Brown signed two bills this week that will increase access to sterile needles for injection-drug users, with a view to decreasing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. The first bill lets pharmacies sell syringes to adults without a prescription: California is one of the last states to legalize such sales. The second bill allows health and social-service agencies to provide needle-exchange programs in locations where the rapid spread of HIV, hepatitis and other infections present particularly high risks. Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who took the lead on the needle-exchange law, told The Fix: “Syringe exchanges shouldn’t be about politics. They are about the science of public health.” Every agency that has evaluated the policy of needle-exchange—including the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization—has found that such programs decrease the spread of infectious disease without increasing levels of drug-use. And the costs of not adopting these schemes—in terms of health-care and lost life—are enormous. The office of state Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), who wrote the first bill, cited a report by the California Research Bureau saying hospitalizations for hepatitis B and C cost the state $2 billion in 2007. The per-patient lifetime cost of treating HIV/AIDS is now estimated to top $600,000. Yet needle-exchange as a policy remains controversial in some counties. Just last month, the Fresno County board of supervisors blocked a previously-approved plan to legalize a well established needle exchange—despite county health officials’ warnings that new HIV and hepatitis C infections are rising. “AIDS and hepatitis do not recognize county borders and thus our current policy is not nearly as effective as it should be,” said Yee.

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Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. She is the author of several books, including the non-fiction, The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober. You can find Jennifer on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.