Support Modesto’s Needle Exchange Defendants!

On April 11, 2009, Kristy Tribuzio and Brian Robinson were arrested in a park in Modesto, Stanislaus County, for handing out clean needles at an unauthorized syringe exchange program (SEP).  SEPs have been operating globally since the late 1980s as a direct response to the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C (HCV). As blood borne diseases, the transmission of HIV and HCV infection represents a major issue for injection drug users (IDUs). Currently, the State of California allows individual cities or counties to “opt in” regarding the legalization of SEPs, which Stanislaus County has decided against. The two volunteers decided to run an underground SEP to address a public health issue that the County has ignored, and now face up to a year in jail. It is crucial for the health and wellbeing of its residents that Stanislaus County authorizes SEPs due to its high IDU population and concurrent high rates of HIV and especially HCV.

The legalization of SEPs has always been a controversial subject: politicians worry that by legalizing programs, they would be pardoning drug use, therefore contradicting the United States’ zero tolerance drug policy. Current policies view “illicit drug use as a criminal and moral problem more than as a public health problem,” with opponents arguing that providing sterile injection equipment would be inconsistent with the War on Drugs, and may lead to higher rates of injection drug use. As Vlahov et al. explain, “Part of the difficulty in resolving conflict over SEPs is that the tension between a pragmatic public health perspective that explicitly includes balancing risks, costs and benefits (harm reduction) versus an absolutist ‘zero tolerance’ perspective on illicit drug use.”

Over 60 dirty needles were cleaned-up in 1 day around Mono Park by Brian, Kristy, & several supporters

There has been extensive research on the cost and benefits of SEPs for public health since 1991. By 1993, research done by the United States General Accounting Office and the University of California concluded that SEPs indeed lowered rates of HIV/AIDS transmission and did not increase rates of injection drug use. The Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Service, the Surgeon General, and the Center for Disease Control have reiterated these findings as well. The reports also “provide evidence…that SEPs were a bridge to drug abuse treatment and were not associated with increased crime.”

The Central Valley has some of the highest rates of injection drug use in the nation, with corresponding rates of blood-borne diseases. Through May of 2005, there were 857 cases of HIV/AIDS in Stanislaus County, 32.6% of which were IDU related (either directly from injection use, 20%, or through exposure via maternal injection use or sexual contact with an IDU, 12.6%). Between 2000 and 2005, there were 4,052 new cases of HCV, with injection use being the primary mode of transmission. In 2008, Stanislaus County’s Civil Grand Jury advised the implementation of a SEP. The Board also had support from the Counties’ Public Health Department, the Advisory Board for Substance Abuse Programs, the local AIDS Advisory Implementation Group, and the State of California’s HCV Task Force. Nonetheless, in 2009 the Board of Supervisors rejected the proposal due to moral grounds, with the DA and Sheriff saying that such a program in the County would “enable drug users to continue their addiction,” despite all the research stating otherwise.

Needle exchange programs are one the most important and effective interventions for reducing the transmission of HCV and HIV. Clearly, in a county with such high incidences of both injection use and blood borne diseases, it is imperative that the local government supports this important public health policy. There are 40 legal needle exchange programs in the state of California (only 3 authorized exchanges in the Central Valley), and over 211 in the United. It is time Stanislaus County take heed of the scientific evidence and recommendations of so many public health officials, and legalize SEPs so volunteers like Tribuzio and Robinson can continue saving lives in their communities… By Christina Muller-Shinn in February 2010

Needle Exchange Supporters Rally Downtown

More than 30 activists from Fresno, the Bay Area and Stanislaus County converged outside the downtown Modesto courthouse on Monday, February 1st to protest criminal charges against two people accused of handing out clean syringes and collecting dirty ones from drug addicts in a Modesto park.

Supporters Rally outside the Stanislaus Co. Court House

Kristy Tribuzio, 36, and Brian Robinson, 37, face up to a year in jail for breaking a law they consider to be immoral.

People held signs reading “Public Health Over Politics” and chanted in favor of dropping the charges. They excoriated local elected officials, pointing to a decision by the county Board of Supervisors in September 2008 to nix legalizing needle exchange over the recommendations of health officials.

“It should be a health issue, not a political issue,” said Dallas Blanchard, 45, whose needle exchange program in Fresno was approved just over a year ago.”By treating it as a political issue, we’re just allowing people to die,” he added.

Tribuzio and Robinson’s defense team planned to argue that the pair were acting out of medical necessity: that conducting a needle exchange program was a justified act aimed at saving lives and preventing diseases like HIV and hepatitis C among drug users… (From

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Categories: Central Valley News, Drug War/Laws

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