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Santa Monica Group Files Lawsuit Over Needle Program


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By Jorge Casuso

February 16, 2024 -- The Santa Monica Coalition on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the LA County Health Department to halt a program that distributes clean needles in the beach city's parks and other outdoor spaces.

The lawsuit -- which also names County Health Director Barbara Ferrer and the Venice Family Clinic as defendants -- claims the parties failed to comply with California's Health and Safety Code in authorizing the program, the Coalition said.

Section 121349 of the code "requires consultation with local law enforcement before the program is authorized and before the program is reauthorized after an initial two-year period of operation," according to the group.

The program also "failed to provide residents the required 45-days for comment" and "failed to have a plan in place to collect data in order to assess the impact of the program."

It also "failed to conduct or assess the environmental review required by the state with regard to public disposal of needles in the grassy areas of the park and near storm drains," the Coalition said.

The lawsuit's charges echo those made by a neighborhood group in Santa Cruz County that led to the halt of an outdoor needle distribution program.

In the final ruling on November 17, a Sacramento Superior Court judge ordered the California Department of Public Health to revoke its authorization of the mobile syringe distribution program, according to a report in the Santa Cruz Lookout.

The court ordered the Department "to follow its established guidelines in order to authorize new needle distribution programs anywhere in California," the paper reported.

The Santa Monica Coalition, comprised of Downtown business owners and residents, has been documenting discarded needles in videos and pictures distributed on the internet.

"The Coalition emphasizes it is not addressing the advantages or disadvantages of the needle distribution program," a press release issued Thursday states.

Instead it is "focusing its efforts solely on moving the program from Santa Monica's parks, public areas, private property without owner permission, and into County or City-owned buildings with direct medical supervision and support services."

The lawsuit comes nearly one and a half years after the City Council requested that County officials help to immediately relocate a program run by the Venice Family Clinic indoors ("Council Expected to Ask County's Help Removing Clean Needle Program from Parks," September 12, 2022).

In a letter to County Health officials, then Santa Monica Mayor Sue Himmelrich wrote that "rather than implement this program in our parks and open spaces, we seek your assistance in immediately moving this program to a service rich environment (preferably indoors)."

A month later, the City received a response from Gary Tsai, director of the County's Substance Abuse Prevention and Control, who said that "brick and mortar locations often present barriers to services."

"Evidence suggests that restricting access to harm reduction services will only exacerbate the current overdose and homelessness crises" ("Little Progress Moving Needle Exchange Program Indoors," March 23, 2023).

Tsai suggested the best way to address the issue was for the Venice Family Clinic to deliver the services from "one or more mobile vans" paid for by the City at a cost of $150,000 to $180,000 each.

Critics of the program say it enables addicts to continue using, draws more homeless to the city and makes parks less safe.

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