Santa Cruz residents petition to stop needle exchange programs from expanding

Some Santa Cruz area residents are circulating a petition to stop the expansion of needle exchanges in the region.

Santa Cruz native and registered nurse Melissa Freebairn plans to sign the online petition, because she worries more programs will lead to more dirty syringes on beaches and in waterways.

"I take my daughter down to the beach to build driftwood statues out of the wood and I started noticing there was a lot of dirty needles within the driftwood," said Freebairn.

Now, she won't let her daughter play at the beach next to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk after she says she found more than 20 dirty syringes on that same beach since January.

"Some have blood still in the chamber, some have drugs still in the needle," said Freebairn.

She thinks Santa Cruz County needs to re-examine its needle exchange program.

In March 2019, the Santa Cruz County distributed 61,906 needles.

That's compared to Santa Clara County which has seven times as many people and distributed 40,230 in the same time frame.

Jennifer Herrera is the Director of Nursing for Santa Cruz County's Department of Public Health and oversees the County's needle exchange program.

She says while the number of needles distributed is high and growing, they collected even more, pointing out 92,921 needles were collected in March 2019 which is well above the amount the county gave out.

"Needle exchange is recognized as an evidence-based intervention to reduce the incidents of disease in the community," said Herrera.

She also says syringes aren't only available through the exchange program, saying anyone can buy them at pharmacies and online.

Now an outside group, the Harm Reduction Coalition of Santa Cruz County, has stepped forward and wants to expand the needle exchange program further into the Santa Cruz Mountains and Watsonville.

That program's organizer, Denise Elerick, says more programs are the answer, not the problem.

Freebairn says one positive change in recent months is the addition of a needle collection basin at the homeless encampment dubbed "Camp Ross" behind the Ross Dress for Less at River Street and Highway 9.

She worries another needle exchange program, will lead to more syringe litter.

"It's kind of a known thing to tell your kids now, 'You need to watch out for needles on the beach,' which is really sad," said Freebairn.

The public comment period on the proposed state-run needle exchange program runs through May 24. Learn how to make a public comment here.