Schwarzenegger splits the baby on syringe sales

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed a bill that would’ve let pharmacies all over California sell sterile syringes to an adult without a prescription, a measure that health experts called a key protection against the transmission of HIV, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases.

“When I signed legislation my first year in office allowing for a pilot program to allow the sale of syringes through participating counties and registered pharmacies, I was seeking to balance the competing public health, law enforcement and local control issues that this issue requires,” the governor wrote in his veto message. “I believe this balance was achieved and SB 1029 would remove the ability of local officials to best determine policies in their jurisdiction. Some counties have not sought to implement this pilot program, citing competing priorities, lack of pharmacy interest and law enforcement opposition.”

“I respect these local decisions and while I appreciate the author’s hard work and dedication to this issue, I cannot sign this bill,” Schwarzenegger wrote.

The governor instead signed AB 1701 by Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, to extends the existing Disease Prevention Demonstration Project for eight more years, still leaving it to city councils or county supervisors to decide whether to opt in and let pharmacies choose to take part.

But state Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who had authored SB 1029, issued a scathing statement Friday saying the governor apparently “was not interested in an effective public health measure that would reduce health care costs to taxpayers. Not only did he ignore the recommendation of doctors and other health experts, but he ignored the fact that HIV-AIDS and hepatitis do not recognize county borders. Such epidemics are certain to continue without implementing these comprehensive strategies.”

Sharing of used syringes is the most common cause of new hepatitis C infections in California and the second most common cause of HIV infections. The state Department of Public Health estimates that approximately 3,000 California residents contract hepatitis C through syringe sharing every year and another 750 cases of HIV are caused by syringe sharing.

Among SB 1029’s supporters were the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, AIDS Project Los Angeles, American Civil Liberties Union, California Hepatitis Alliance, California Nurses Association, California Psychiatric Association, California Retailers Association, County Alcohol & Drug Program Administrators, Drug Policy Alliance Network, California Medical Association, California Pharmacists Association, City and County of San Francisco, Health Officers Association of California, and Equality California.

It was opposed by the California Narcotic Officers’ Association, California Peace Officers’ Association, California Police Chiefs’ Association and the League of California Cities. The California Narcotic Officers’ Association had opposed Wesbro’s bill, too.

Glenn Backes, a public policy consultant to both the Drug Policy Alliance and the California Hepatitis Alliance, had said in July that Yee’s bill was better than just extending the county-by-county pilot program.

“Basically, if it is good policy for the residents of Bay Area counties, then it is good policy for the residents of Central Valley counties,” Backes said. “Especially given that the indigent ill are a burden on all taxpayers, a burden on the state general fund, no matter where they reside in the state. Allowing adults to spend their own money to protect their health and the health of others is the only proven way to reduce the rate of HIV and hepatitis without spending a dime of city, county or state money.”

Yee said SB 1029’s approach “has been evaluated extensively throughout the world and has been found to significantly reduce rates of HIV and hepatitis without contributing to any increase in drug use, drug injection, crime or unsafe discard of syringes. In fact, there is not one credible study that refutes these findings. The Governor’s veto is a moral and fiscal dilemma.”

Laura Thomas, the Drug Policy Alliance’s deputy state director, said the governor’s veto is “tragic and infuriating”

“It is an irrational attachment to drug war hysteria, at the expense of human life and fiscal responsibility to the California taxpayer,” she said. “Nothing would have worked better and cost less in reducing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C than SB 1029.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.