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CDC HIV/AIDS/Viral Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update
CALIFORNIA: Santa Cruz Public Forum Addresses Drugs and Needle Exchange
Shanna McCord
April 11, 2013
Santa Cruz Sentinel (California) (04.10.13)

At an April 10 public forum held at the Santa Cruz High School auditorium, experts on needle exchange programs aimed at injection drug users highlighted the benefits that exchanges provide to addicts and the community at large. Several nonprofits and churches sponsored the forum, at which more than 100 people attended. Giang Nguyen, director of the county's Health Services Agency; Alex Kral of San Francisco's Urban Health Program; and Craig Reinarman, a University of California Santa Cruz sociology professor, all spoke about drugs, public health, and needle exchanges. The speakers all supported free syringe distribution to prevent diseases from spreading, and they encouraged proper needle disposal among drug users. In Santa Cruz, drug use and needle exchanges are controversial topics; the community has grown increasingly perturbed with the number of cast-off needles found in parks and on beaches, which they say has eroded public safety and the quality of life. City residents successfully called for the January 2013 closure of Street Outreach Supporters, a longtime needle exchange program in Santa Cruz’s Lower Ocean area. The program has since relocated to the county’s Emeline Avenue campus in Santa Cruz, which has resulted in a 38-percent decrease in participants. Beginning April 30, county public health workers will oversee the needle exchange program, which will move indoors. The program also will operate at the Watsonville Health Center on Crestview Drive, with needles available five days a week. Nguyen emphasized, "We're not about promoting drugs. Our mission is to prevent communicable diseases in this community. We want to make sure the syringe exchange program continues in this community." Nguyen informed the forum that Santa Cruz County injection drug users comprise 12 percent of new HIV cases, compared with 20 percent statewide, a sign of the program's success. Kral, with many years of experience in San Francisco needle exchange programs, said the benefits are far reaching, and that his research refutes opponents’ accusations that providing heroin users with free, sterile needles increases their drug use. Santa Cruz resident Elizabeth Gaona attended the forum with her 7-month-old son. Gaona has participated in a few Take Back Santa Cruz events. She stated that drug use has been a divisive issue in the community. She declared, "I'd like to see some kind of solution come together. I'd like to re-unify our community. Right now it feels like a shouting match by both sides."