Brown expands syringe sales & exchanges

Gov. Jerry Brown yesterday signed into law a Bay Area lawmaker’s bill that lets people buy syringes at pharmacies without a prescription – something his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had vetoed one year ago.

Brown also signed another Bay Area lawmaker’s bill to let the state Department of Public Health authorize new syringe exchange programs – a power previously held only by cities and counties – to deal with high rates of hepatitis, HIV and drug use in the state’s rural areas. Both bills take effect Jan. 1.

“This is a huge victory for public health and common sense,” said Laura Thomas, the Drug Policy Alliance’s California deputy director. “Now all Californians will have the same access to proven, effective HIV and hepatitis C prevention. This gives drug users the tools that they need to protect their health and that of their partners, children, and communities, as well as protecting the California taxpayer from the cost of HIV and hepatitis C infections.”

SB 41, by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, expands statewide what had been a pilot program to which city councils or county supervisors could decide whether to opt in and pharmacies could choose to participate. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed Yee’s previous iteration of the bill last October, local officials can make the best decisions for their own jurisdictions; Yee and the bill’s backers had said most counties weren’t opting in, and blood-borne diseases don’t recognize political borders.

“SB 41 will greatly reduce healthcare costs to taxpayers and save lives,” Yee said today, noting that 47 states already let pharmacists sell syringes without a prescription. “(D)iabetics who visit our state may not even have a prescription and come here assuming they can purchase needles at a pharmacy. This new law will also ensure those diabetics or others who need syringes for health purposes will not be stranded here in California without the ability to administer life-saving insulin and other medicines.”

Besides the Drug Policy Alliance, SB 41 was supported by groups including the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the California Academy of Family Physicians, California Nurses Association, California Medical Association, California Pharmacists Association, California Retailers Association, Rite Aid, San Francisco Hepatitis C Task Force, Health Officers Association of California, California Hepatitis Alliance, Equality California, AFSCME, ACLU, AIDS Project Los Angeles, California Psychiatric Association, and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California.

AB 604 by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, lets the state from Jan. 1 through the start of 2019 authorize community organizations to create syringe-exchange programs where cities and counties have balked at doing so.

“California needs a uniform approach to syringe exchange programs, which are endorsed by all major national, state, and international health and medical associations, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association,” Skinner said Monday. “By signing AB 604, Governor Brown is helping ensure we have that kind of uniform approach in California, one based on public health instead of politics.”

The new law requires that if a community group’s application has merit and is from an area of demonstrably high need, CDPH must consult both the local health officer and local law enforcement leadership and then hold a 90-day public comment period before granting or denying the authorization.

Skinner noted Monday that the Obama Administration recently approved use of federal funds for syringe-exchange programs, “so AB 604 will cost nothing to California’s General Fund, yet has the potential to save our state millions in healthcare costs.”

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.