Human Rights Watch Faults Davis for Poor AIDS Prevention Policy

Press Release September 8, 2003

Sacramento–A report issued today by Human Rights Watch (HRW) strongly criticized Governor Gray Davis for supporting policies that “violated the human rights of injection drug users to take steps to protect their health.” HRW recommended that Governor Davis sign SB 774, legislation that would allow adults to purchase and possess up to 30 syringes without a prescription, which the state legislature recently passed. California is one of only five states that require a prescription to purchase a sterile syringe — a requirement that medical professionals believe has led to unnecessary deaths from AIDS and other infectious diseases.

“Allowing drug users to buy syringes might be tough politics, but it is definitely good policy,” said Dustin Corcoran of the California Medical Association. “If the Governor signs this bill, he will save thousands of lives and millions of tax dollars that might otherwise be spent treating the sick and dying.”

Last year, Gov. Davis vetoed a bill that would have allowed adults to buy syringes at licensed pharmacies. That bill, like SB 774, was supported by associations of pharmacists, physicians, AIDS specialists, unions and retailers. It was, however, opposed by law enforcement groups on the grounds that such a law might encourage drug use, or “send the wrong message.” HRW’s lengthy review of numerous studies found no support for those claims. This year’s bill was overhauled to meet concerns that the Governor articulated in his veto message, but it is still uncertain whether he intends to sign the bill authored by State Senator John Vasconcellos (D-San Jose).

Human Rights Watch published a letter to Gov. Davis today, along with their report, asking that he sign SB 774 into law. In that letter, Joanne Cseste and Jamie Fellner, Directors of HRW’s HIV and Human Rights Program and US Program, respectively, wrote:

Government-sponsored evaluations of both needle exchange and nonprescription pharmacy sales of syringes show that these programs dramatically reduce rates of HIV and hepatitis C prevention; provide impetus for the safe disposal of used syringes; and do not increase rates of drug use. Restricting these programs in the face of unassailable scientific evidence represents an affront to public health, and violates injection drug users’ internationally recognized human right to take steps to protect themselves from epidemic disease…;..
Senate Bill 774 is a test of your leadership on HIV prevention and human rights. We urge you to sign it into law.

The full report and letter can be read at

The report also found fault with Governor Davis for brokering a deal with law enforcement groups to water down a 1999 bill that authorized syringe exchange programs, but only in a limited number of counties. That law exempted the staff of authorized programs from prosecution for distributing syringes, but not the program participants. Currently a drug user in California can be arrested for possessing syringes given to him or her by a medical professional at an authorized needle exchange — a “Catch-22” that SB 774 would help address.

CALIFORNIA VOICES ON SB 774 (Vasconcellos)

State Senator John Vasconcellos (D-San Jose) “SB 774, which allows adults to be responsible for protecting their own health and the health of others, is even more critical now that the budgets for drug treatment and HIV prevention are being slashed . This measure saves lives and money.”
(916) 445-9740

Dana Van Gorder of San Francisco AIDS Foundation: “Although the Governor has a respectable record on AIDS treatment, he has failed to do enough to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. To be a true leader in the fight against AIDS, he needs to sign this bill into law.” (415) 987-7061

Alberto Mendoza of the Los Angeles Hepatitis C Task Force: “Latino and Black communities are disproportionately hurt by the Governor’s policy of keeping syringes illegal in all circumstances. The rates of hepatitis C and HIV among Latino and Black drug injectors are much higher than they are for white drug injectors. Because of racial profiling, we are at increased risk of being arrested for carrying a syringe for personal use.” (323) 855-7273

Kent Stoddard of Waste Management, Inc.: “SB 774 by John Vasconcellos includes a comprehensive program to recover and destroy used syringes and other medical waste, that will protect the health and well-being of workers in the waste management and recycling industry.” (916) 448-4675

Bill Magavern of Sierra Club: “Sierra Club supports SB 774 because syringes should be treated as hazardous waste, so they do not endanger workers and the public.” (916) 557-1100 x102

From the HRW report, “Hugh S.” of Hayward, “They [police] told me that they wanted to check my pockets for drugs, and then found that point [syringe] in my pocket and got all ticked off over that because I didn’t pull it out for them.” After four days in jail, he received a year’s probation for unlawful possession of a hypodermic syringe. He still carries his own syringes rather than risk deadly infection caused by syringe-sharing, although knows that another arrest might lead to months in jail. “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.”

Glenn Backes, Drug Policy Alliance: “Forty-five states allow pharmacist to sell syringes without a prescription. Governors throughout the U.S. can see the wisdom of saving lives and money at no cost to taxpayers, should we expect anything less from Gray Davis?” (916) 439-6494

Jessie Gruttadauria, AIDS Healthcare Foundation: “By signing this important piece of legislation, the Governor can help dramatically reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. Not only will SB 774 save lives, it will also ultimately help California save millions of dollars in healthcare costs.” (323) 791-9612

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

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