Bill to Allow Pharmacies to Sell Syringes Passes California Assembly

Press Release August 26, 2002
Media Contact

Glenn Backes or Julie Ruiz-Sierra at 916-444-3751

SACRAMENTO-“This is the single most important piece of AIDS prevention policy to be passed by the California Legislature in a decade,” said Glenn Backes, Director of the Drug Policy Alliance office in Sacramento. “It will save thousands of lives and millions of dollars, without using a penny of state money. This should be an easy call for the Governor.”

The bill’s purpose is to slow the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and other diseases spread when drug users share contaminated syringes. It is supported by a veritable Who’s Who of California health policy professionals, including Kaiser health plan, the Medical and Nurses Associations, AIDS advocacy groups, and associations representing pharmacists and retailers. It is opposed by three police associations represented by one lobbyist. The majority of state police associations and unions do not oppose the bill.

Advocates for SB 1785 — legislation by State Senator John Vasconcellos (D-San Jose) which would allow pharmacists to sell up to 30 syringes to an adult without a prescription — are fearful that Gov. Gray Davis may not sign the bill into law. They say he has built his reputation as a moderate Democrat, one who generally champions causes of importance to health associations and gay and lesbian groups, but who relies heavily on police support to buttress his appeal in conservative districts.

“It remains to be seen whether one police lobbyist can trump the combined opinion of the state’s health policy leaders during an election year” said Backes. “Hopefully the Governor will listen to the experts instead of giving into politics and sign this bill into law.” Governors throughout the US signed similar legislation in preceding years, including George Pataki of New York in 2000 and Tommy Thomson of Wisconsin back in 1989 (Thomson now serves as President Bush’s cabinet Secretary of Health & Human Services).

California is one of only six states that still requires a prescription for pharmacists to sell sterile syringes to adults. Many states that once limited access to sterile syringes as a drug control measure amended their laws after the advent of AIDS, when numerous studies by the federal government concluded that improved access to sterile syringes reduced the spread of HIV without contributing to any increase in drug use, drug injection or crime.

Last year, 1,850 Californians died of AIDS.According to a report published by the California Department of Health Services last year, an estimated 1500 drug users are infected with HIV each year due to dirty needles-a third of whom are women. A sizable proportion of the approximately 300 women infected each year through heterosexual sex acquire HIV from their intravenous drug-using partners. The majority of the estimated 30 infants born annually with HIV are born to women infected due to their sharing a dirty syringe, or having sex with a man who did.

Mary June, a public health nurse with the California Nurses Association, one of the original sponsors of the bill, explained: “Improved access to sterile syringes gives public health nurses more ways of protecting their patients, and is better for the health of this state.”

Hepatitis C, a relatively new challenge for the state, threatens to kill even more Californians than AIDS. The state Department of Health last year estimated that 600,000 state residents were already infected with hepatitis C, with an additional 5000 new infections projected annually — 60% of which would be caused by syringe sharing. Hepatitis C can lead to severe liver disease and death, although the majority of those infected will suffer only mild symptoms or clear the disease on their own. With thousands suffering late stage liver disease wrought by hepatitis C, the cost of treating the disease already tops $50 million each year in California.

A study published last year found that almost 30% of street cops in San Diego suffered a needlestick injury on the job, usually during a pat-down search. Senator Vasconcellos said today: “One of the reasons I have fought so hard for this bill is it protects our state’s police officers. When Connecticut changed their syringe laws, needlestick injuries to police dropped by 66%.”

Most state police associations and unions chose to remain neutral after the California Narcotics Officers Association came out early against the bill. The lobbyist for the narcotics officers could not, however, prevent the only retired narcotics officer in the legislature, Republican Richard Dickerson of Redding from voting for the bill. Dickerson said from his 30 years in law enforcement that, “It doesn’t help to throw them in jail for having needles. They are addicted. They will find needles somewhere, in a dumpster, or in the arm of their shooting partner.” Asking for the support of his colleagues, he said “We can make it better. We can stop the spread of diseases that are blood-borne.”

Republican Assembly Member Keith Richman, a practicing physician from Simi Valley, cited the wealth of scientific research in favor of pharmacy sale before asking for an ‘Aye’ vote.

Among the influential advocates for the bill have been retailers and pharmacists, including the Walgreen’s chain. “As pharmacists we witness firsthand the devastating effects of HIV and hepatitis C on patients and their families,” explained Carlo Michelotti, CEO of the California Pharmacists Association. “If the Governor signs this bill into law, pharmacists will play an integral role in helping prevent the spread of these diseases within our communities. That’s what this bill is all about, protecting public health.”

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A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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