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Council Majority Denounces Needle Program in Parks


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By Jorge Casuso

March 22, 2024 -- After a heated discussion, the City Council Tuesday narrowly approved a resolution denouncing a County program that distributes clean needles in parks to homeless addicts.

The resolution was approved after the County rejected repeated efforts by the City, as well as individual councilmembers, to move the program run by the Venice Family Clinic indoors.

"The program encourages continued use of illegal and dangerous drugs, and people are dying as a result," reads the motion approved by a 4 to 3 vote.

"Residents should not have to see people shooting up in our neighborhood parks, nor the behavior that results from illegal drug use. Drug use and needles simply do not belong in our parks and other public spaces."

Proponents of the resolution, who ran on an anti-crime platform, argued that the program takes place mainly in Reed Park directly across the street from St. Monica's, a TK-12 school.

"The City Council three times now has sent messages to the County asking them to move the program inside," said Mayor Phil Brock. "That's failed. My patience honestly is over.

"I'm tired of seeing reports from residents that they won't go into our parks," Brock added. "We are helping people kill themselves. This is not casual drug use. This is serious sh--."

Councilmember Oscar de la Torre cited data showing that overdose deaths in LA County have skyrocketed from fewer than 300 in 2017 to more than 3,000 in 2022.

The increase is due to a fentanyl and meth epidemic with many of those addicted using needles to inject the drug, de la Torre said. "Shooting a drug is much more dangerous."

"If we had an epidemic of people shooting themselves in the head, I think it's not a good idea for the government to be passing out handguns," de la Torre said.

Opponents of the resolution argued that open drug use in parks is not the result of clean needles being handed out as part of a "harm reduction" program to curb the spread of HIV and Hepatitis.

"People don't go to Reed Park for the one hour per week in which needles are distributed," said Councilmember Jesse Zwick. "Harm reduction comes to the park because that is the place where the people who need harm reduction are."

Councilmember Gleam Davis recited data and quotes from experts backing the effectiveness of needle exchange programs.

She cited data presented to the the Recreation and Parks Commission by Gary Tsai, director of the County's Substance Abuse Prevention and Control, that show the program hands out 100 syringes to between 30 to 40 individuals each week.

The program -- which takes place for an hour a week, mainly at Reed Park -- also distributes naloxone, which can quickly revert an opioid overdose, and fentanyl testing strips. Tsai reported that the naloxone saves 12 lives per month, Davis said.

De la Torre, who said he was skeptical of some of the data Davis cited, added a friendly amendment to the resolution.

The amendment notes that the City supports harm reduction needle exchange programs if they are held indoors and "not in parks and around our schools."

The resolution comes one and a half years after the City Council sent a letter asking County officials to immediately relocate the program indoors ("Council Expected to Ask County's Help Removing Clean Needle Program from Parks," September 12, 2022).

A month later, the City received a response from Tsai saying that "brick and mortar locations often present barriers to services" ("Little Progress Moving Needle Exchange Program Indoors," March 23, 2023).

"Evidence suggests that restricting access to harm reduction services will only exacerbate the current overdose and homelessness crises."

Last month, the Santa Monica Coalition filed a lawsuit against the LA County Health Department to halt the program ("Santa Monica Group Files Lawsuit Over Needle Program," February 16, 2024).

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