State sues El Dorado county over needle exchange bans

Odin Rasco / Mountain Democrat

PLACERVILLE, Calif. – As part of an ongoing dispute between some county officials and the Sierra Harm Reduction Coalition, a nonprofit that distributes clean needles, Narcan and offers other services, Placerville’s City Council and the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors both recently passed bans on the operation of needle exchange programs. Following on the heels of the latter of the two bans, passed by City Council in late February, the California Department of Public Health filed a lawsuit against the two governing bodies and their elected officials.

The lawsuit, filed March 8 in El Dorado County Superior Court, seeks a writ of mandate that would compel the local governments to remove their ordinances regarding syringe services programs. The CDPH suit claims the bans are unlawful as they overstep state laws that take precedence. 

El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson released a statement Tuesday responding to the news of the state’s lawsuit, saying in no uncertain terms that policy set by the state government regarding drug use was one that led to failure, crime and death.

“This is disastrously dangerous and I am furious at our state leaders,” Pierson states. “Don’t come into our county and double down on your failed policy. Allowing addicts to use fentanyl and other hardcore drugs is exactly what has caused other California counties to experience a death rate that is out of control and getting worse.

“This road to hell via good intentions has been paved over the past several years by California’s governor and his administration’s insistence on normalizing hardcore drug use,” Pierson continued. “The consequence has been increased overdose deaths, drug addiction, homelessness and rampant property crime. We have tried to chart a safer course, but now the governor and attorney general are suing El Dorado County seeking to impose the normalization of hardcore drug use.”

Pierson’s statement references a recent opinion column written with U.S. Rep. Kevin Kiley that claims California is “reeling from the dark consequences of Proposition 47.” The statement claims a surge of overdose deaths in the state and homeless deaths in Sacramento are the consequences of the proposition, that “made hard drugs cheap and accessible, without any incentive or requirement for treatment.”

The county and city have been concerned with SHRC’s operations for some time, with representatives from the Placerville Police Department, El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office and the DA’s Office presenting arguments as to why the coalition should not be allowed to operate locally. The groups argue the coalition’s services undermine efforts to reduce the homeless population and enable habits that have far-reaching consequences, such as more crime. EDSO personnel reported SHRC products were located at the site of at least two overdose deaths in the county.

“We already have the tools and resources available here if they want help to overcome (drug addiction),” Leikauf told the board in 2023. “We remain an agency that is committed to total enforcement on crime and criminals and total care for our victims, witnesses and community.”

Sierra Harm Reduction Coalition Director Tom Ewing provided his personal stance on the situation in December, arguing SHRC’s efforts were in the public interest.

“It’s a simple fact that people who use drugs will obtain the supplies they need to use them, whether there is a harm reduction organization in the area or not, just like they manage to obtain drugs in spite of the fact that they are illegal,” Ewing told the Mountain Democrat.

Ewing claimed more than 600 people in the county were obtaining supplies from other areas and then selling at inflated prices to others, leading to an uptick in sharing or reusing needles. Such activities “put the community at large at risk of HIV, hepatitis C and other blood-borne infections,” Ewing states. According to Ewing, syringe buying, sharing and reuse in the county has largely disappeared since SHRC began its operations locally.

Discussions regarding needle exchange programs in the county kicked off last summer, as SHRC’s contract to operate in the county was set to expire September 1, 2023; the county voted 4-1 in June to send a letter to CDPH urging they do not renew the contract. Placerville’s City Council held a similar discussion shortly afterward, deciding to send their own letter to the state’s health department. 

With other options available through the county’s health department and Marshall Medical Center, the board and city felt the needs of those with substance issues had ample options without the involvement of SHRC.

“We understand that harm reduction service operators are sometimes the only connection with the unhoused population in rural areas and that they build relationships and are there to offer additional resources when people are receptive,” states the letter sent by the board in June. “In El Dorado County we have already built an effective network of trusted relationships with the unhoused population.”

In spite of the letters sent by the local governments, the CDPH did renew SHRC’s contract in September. The county and city pushed back once again, leading to a back-and forth that culminated in the board passing Ordinance 5189 in December, banning needle exchange programs from operating in unincorporated areas. Revising the contract, the CDPH then stipulated SHRC would have the authority to operate solely within Placerville city limits, which prompted the passage of a 45-day ban on needle exchanges passed 4-1 by City Council. 

“I understand the micro- v. macro- effects and I know there are success stories,” Councilmember Michael Saragosa said prior to voting in favor of the ban. “But, like with homelessness, the macros story tells a much different tale of woefully poor results. I do have an issue with this and a bigger issue with the state saying ‘only Placerville’ without having a conversation with us.”

A CDPH representative provided the following statement when contacted for comment regarding the recent lawsuit:

“CDPH continues to consider all avenues for protecting the state’s statutory authority to approve SSPs. In light of the active litigation, CDPH does not have any comment at this time. In general, harm reduction programs help people who use drugs protect themselves from injury and infections and provide essential safety net services. Recent increases in hepatitis C infection and the rise of fentanyl have made harm reduction efforts such as syringe services programs, pharmacy sale of syringes and naloxone distribution programs even more critical to protect public health.”

Though the bans passed by the county and Placerville are very similar to a similar one passed in October by the Placer County Board of Directors, the CDPH does not appear to have filed a lawsuit against that government body at this time, according to court documents.

Placerville City Manager Cleve Morris said he could not provide extensive comment on the lawsuit as it is active litigation, but provided a statement:

“The city of Placerville adopted a 45-day moratorium to study the ongoing effects of syringe service programs in the city after CDPH concentrated their use by authorizing them only in Placerville and nowhere else in the county. The city wants to protect the health, safety and welfare of its residents.”

Though the CDPH claims it has the legal authority to compel the county and city to allow needle exchange programs, it appears it will not get its writ of mandate without a fight.

“This lawsuit is madness,” Pierson said. “I will fight against it tooth and nail because the citizens of this county deserve policies that will keep them as safe as possible.”

A statement by Supervisor Wendy Thomas on behalf of the board shares in the frustration expressed by Pierson, pledging to discuss the “abhorrent lawsuit” at the next board meeting. She claims local data proves syringe exchange programs have caused “much harm” in the county, and the ordinance the board passed was in the interest of protecting the community.

“I am disgusted and appalled that the state of California intends to use its bully pulpit to override our local control and authority to enact an ordinance which protects children and adults in our communities,” Thomas states. “In a state teeming with homelessness, crime, drug addiction and overdose deaths, how dare they sue us in defense of ‘public health.'”

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