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The Santa Cruz Needle Exchange Hopes to Exchange Wasted Lives for Productive Ones

Santa Cruz residents are angry about the numbers of junkies roaming the streets and discarded needles turning up all over. However, this volunteer group says it trying to help get hopeless people back into society.

It's dark outside the laundromat at Barson and Bixby streets in the Lower Ocean neighborhood Tuesday at 6:15 in the evening, but the line has already formed.

Three people in their twenties sit inside the Santa Cruz laundry wearing wool caps and thermal shirts with backpacks perched next to them. They look like they could be European travelers or UCSC students back from vacation doing their laundry, but no machines are spinning.

The trio are waiting for the arrival of a brown van that dispenses free syringes. They are drug addicts and they eye strangers with a hard, suspicious stare.

When the van pulls up, they move quickly toward it, like kids gathering at the ice cream truck. Soon others arrive. Some are on bicycles. One well-dressed older woman gets out of a mini-van. Two men, who look like they could be in marketing or sales, arrive in a Volvo.

For more than two decades, it's been the same routine. The Santa Cruz Syringe Access Program, which started in 1989 has been pulling up to the laundry and giving away needles in an effort to stem fatal diseases such as HIV and Hepatitus C from being passed along with shared needles and supplies.

"The problem isn't any worse now than in the past," says Emily Ager, the program's senior volunteer who has been giving away needles since 1994. "Every three years or so people look around and realize there's a drug problem and they say it's worse than ever. It's a cycle."

Volunteers now give away 5,000 needles a week – 20,000 a month – in Santa Cruz and Watsonville. It's been higher in the past, she said. The van is on Barson Tuesday and Friday evenings and on Emeline Sunday mornings at 11:30 outside the county health building. It also makes house calls, or calls elsewhere for those who don't have a home.

Needles have been a big red flag for others around Santa Cruz. Used syringes have been littering the caves around Cowell Beach, the levees, the railroad tracks near the new Marine Exploration Center and along the Westside,

Community groups who have been cleaning up all of those area weekly, say they are shocked to find as many as 50 needles in one outing. One group marched to City Hall during a council meeting to complain about the problem, needles in hand.

Eyes have turned hatefully to the needle exchange, which, they say, isn't so much an exchange as a place that is enabling drug users to continue their lifestyle.

And the exchange hasn't helped public perception with a flyer it passed out last week to the husband of new City Councilwoman Pamela Comstock, which declared police as the enemy and taught junkies how to avoid getting arrested. Her husband was curious about the program and approached the van anonymously.

"Know Your Rights and Resist the Police State," was the headline. "Our system of laws exists to maintain the dominance of those in power, the the police are its armed enforcers," it continues.

It tells readers not to cooperate with police, not to consent to searches, to remain silent and talk to a lawyer.

"Be polite yet assertive. Treat them with the respect you would treat a dangerous, wild animal," it says of dealing with police officers.

"That was a mistake," said Ager, 37. "That flyer should not have been there. That isn't what we're about."

She said the flyer was part of the old days of the project, when drug use was linked to civil disobedience. It wasn't created by the project. She thought it had been purged from a collection of flyers that volunteers tailor for the drug user they are consulting with. The others are concerned with health issues.

"I don't know why they gave it to him," she said. "Maybe he didn't look like an addict."

Santa Cruz Police Deputy Chief Steve Clark says that flyer has been part of the exchange's arsenal for years. He's not a fan.

"Look where they are giving those needles. Barson and along the levee. As if those neighborhoods don't have enough problems. There needs to be some serious review and a serious look at what they are doing. We need to look at legislative ways to inject some responsibility into this process. Pun intended."

Clark points out that as well as needles, the exchange also gives away small metal tins to cook heroin and cotton to "purify" it, something he added "doesn't really work." He sees those as encouraging more drug use.

Ager says the cotton and cookers have been included to cut down on the growing number of Hep C cases. Unlike HIV, that disease can be spread through the water used to mix the drugs because it lives longer outside the body. The individual kits are supposed to stop needles, water and the cooked drugs from being shared.

The proof that the progam is working is in the slowdown of the spread of AIDS, she says, which went from epidemic proportions to barely on the radar, locally.

In the last county report done in 2007 there were 267 cases of AIDS and 187 of HIV. At its highest level, there were 73 new AIDS cases in 1992, dropping to 10 in 2001 and 19 in 2007.

However, Hepatitus C is rising quickly, infecting 4,500 Santa Cruzans, according to the County's Public Health Department, 2,200 of them since 1995.

Santa Cruz has been a model in what is called the "Harm Reduction Community," social service providers seeking to cut the spread of deadly diseases brought on by drug use. They try to give counseling to drug users and provide information about where and how to get off drugs, as well as HIV tests.

The city was one of the first to have a needle exchange. It was, until 1998, housed in a building downtown and sponsored biological waste containers in public bathrooms. It lost its walk-in clinic in 2009 in funding cuts that forced the program to a van on the streets.

The 10 volunteers make no money. The van is supplied by the county's health department and the needles at a few cents apiece, gas and other supplies, are bought with donations or grants.

Ager says that all clients who come to the van exchange used needles in order to get new ones. They carry them in portable bio-hazard containers, also given by the exchange.

"It's never going to go away 100 percent," she says of the needles. "There are always going to be some discarded irresponsibly, out of fear, or whatever. Even if we went away and you banned sales of needles at pharmacies, they will still be there. There would probably be more of them because we wouldn't be there to collect them."

Ager is so passionate for the cause, she was arrested under the Broadway Bridge in 1995 for giving out needles on Valentine's Day. The judge dropped the charge, but it showed her how some in the community feel. So why does a bright woman who rides a bicycle full time give two decades of her life to helping junkies?

"These people know that it's risky," she says of the addicts. "These people know that it's not good. These people know that they are hated by their community for what they do. There's a lot of self-hatred going on too.

"We have to work really hard to rebuild their self esteem and encourage people to believe in themselves and take care of themselves."

She says the exchange is the first step toward helping the downtrodden, who often can't get into treatment programs.

As she watches some former drug sympathizers grow older and try to get the government to do something about drug abuse on the streets, like taking away services, she says that former junkies are often the hardest on current drug users.

But it shows that things can change. They changed their behavior so others can too.

"A lot of people have these chaotic periods in their lives," she says. "For some people maybe it's just one wild weekend in college. But almost everybody can relate to the idea of looking back at some point in their lives and going, 'I'm not particularly proud of what I was doing. I guess I used poor judgement.'

"Maybe it was for some stretch of time, a whole night, a whole week or maybe 10 years. And you look back and say, 'I'm glad I survived that.' Our whole goal is to get people to survive those chaotic times and get back to their lives.

"Because when people come out of it, which they do, they are as it turns out, people who have families who love them and they are able to participate as contributing members of society. They have careers, hobbies, children. Chances are we've all encountered people we really respect who have had these experiences."

Emily E Ager January 18, 2013 at 10:58 PM
This is the above-quoted Emily. I wasn't saying that drug use isn't a problem, or that the disposal issue isn't a problem, or even that the problem is static. I was referring to the cycles of publicity, and also the cycles of drug use that ebb and flow in our community. The problems are part of the same cycles. I never "yelled" at anyone. That flyer was not written by anyone at our organization, and was intended for a different audience. Most importantly... You can only get Hep C from blood-to-blood contact. It is a much stronger virus than HIV, and stays alive outside the body for extended periods of time. It is very easy for transmission to occur when one user shares a used cotton or cooker that had contact with even a microscopic bit of infected blood, such as what might exist at the tip of a needle, with another user, even when no needles are shared. Always using one's own injection supplies is very effective in preventing hepatitis C transmission. When we talk about being able to get HCV from water, cottons, cookers, etc, we are still always talking about a blood-to-blood transmission. Any questions, contact me directly. emily.ager@gmail.com

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