It’s been over two years since the Modesto Needle Exchange was shut down in an undercover sting operation by the Sheriff’s Department and the process of defending public health began for two volunteers facing misdemeanor charges in Stanislaus County. They spent countless hours in court, lawyers argued at multiple medical necessity hearings, compromises failed, and in January 2011 the appellate court became involved. After all that time and energy, and for reasons imagined but not really known, the DA’s office changed their tune in March and finally agreed to dismiss the case. The catch? The volunteers were required to pay for and participate in a Pre-Plea DA Diversion Program which was described as a six-hour alcohol and drug education class. They were not required to enter a plea and nothing will be reflected on their records. After completion of the class in late March, Judge Ricardo Cordova immediately dismissed the case on April 1, 2011. Many attempts at a decent resolution with the DA’s office had been made since June 2009, so this development was very surprising and reactions from the two volunteers and their supporters following the dismissal have varied.
After all they had been through, a conclusion was welcomed and dismissal can be seen as a legal victory. For many connected to the case, however, it is also bittersweet. Yes, the DA seemed to have caved and the charges went away with no jail time. This finality is good. Health and safety code 11364.7(a) was added to the list of possible diversion-qualifying violations – also good. But the negative? These were public health workers and they were NOT using, selling, or promoting the use of drugs – they were supporting education and prevention. They were reducing harm in a community that is facing crisis. Both volunteers have expressed not liking the appearance of admitting to wrong-doing just because they took the DA’s deal. While they are relieved it is over, it will take some time for the dramatic events over the last two years to really sink in. It was a long, exhausting, belittling experience that ended with very little faith in the process. After being dragged into a political game and personally losing so much, a jury acquittal would have felt much more like justice.
This case exemplifies the harsh realities of politics, public health, and social injustice in Stanislaus County. The amount of time and money spent by law enforcement is staggering and it is difficult to comprehend why it happened in the first place. The bottom line is that Stanislaus County and its neighbors are still faced with critical disease and drug-related issues. Solutions exist, disease is preventable, and reality must be faced with cost-effective, common sense resources that have been proven to work. Current legislation is moving through California and needs support from the Central Valley. AB 604 would legalize syringe access programs in high-risk areas deemed necessary by the California Department of Public Health. Last year’s version of this bill, AB 1858, made it to Governor Schwarzenegger’s desk but he did not sign. For more information about AB 604 and other important harm reduction bills visit Harm Reduction Coalition at http://www.harmreduction.org. You can also track the current status and breakdown of votes on these bills at http://www.leginfo.ca.gov.
In a letter to supporters, the volunteers shared their appreciation and outlook for the future. “It is really important that we express our gratitude to so many of you, both near and far who have supported us, reached out, cheered us on, written and spoken, showed up, and been outraged alongside us. Your energy has been felt in more ways than you know…We will take our experiences and now each in our own unique direction will move on and get back to the things that matter – living life and seeking out ways to best help others who are trying to live theirs.”