Overview:

Recent events concerning a similar issue in Santa Cruz could potentially affect a legal outcome in Santa Monica in the future

A Santa Cruz court case has prompted the City Council to take a new look at a local needle exchange program with an eye towards additional restrictions on local distribution.

At their Aug. 22 meeting, all seven councilmembers voted to direct the City Manager and City Attorney to investigate and analyze the processes employed by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and its syringe exchange program currently operating in Santa Monica.

At present, the Department of Public Health, along with the Venice Family Clinic, arranges for weekly, three-hour visits to Reed park to distribute clean needles and Narcan doses as part of the county’s Harm Reduction Syringe Services Program.

However, in September of last year, in a unanimous open letter to Los Angeles County officials, then Mayor Sue Himmelrich called for a halt to the program and “immediately [move] this program to a service rich environment (preferably indoors) where individuals in need of substance abuse, mental health, and other services can coordinate and work directly with service providers.”

That request came after an overdose was listed as the suspected cause of death for a homeless person found in Palisades Park just weeks earlier in July, 2022. Despite the letter, little change was effected with minimal impact, especially considering the amount of opposition from Santa Monica residents and government. Aside from the Council’s letter, Downtown property owner John Alle has made the needle exchange program a focus for his criticism of the city and he frequently posts to social media about the quantity of needles found in the city.

At the meeting, local officials reiterated the program was currently out of their control but also their hope for more tools.

“When this first came about last year, I was informed by a resident who said her daughter had stepped on a needle at Reed Park and it was, in fact, due to this needle exchange program that was happening, which nobody was aware of,” said Mayor Pro Tem Lana Negrete, one of the proponents of this item.

“When I brought it to City Council nobody, including the staff, knew about the program. And as we dug deeper, we obviously realized it was a county program, we did not have any local control over it and our requests to not necessarily stop the program, but rather take it indoors to what we perceive to be a safer place to administer, wasn’t that simple,” Negrete said, adding that since it does not appear that all of the parties involved had been as collaborative as perhaps they could, “And so we will ask the City Manager’s office and staff to look at if those things were done to get a permit to run it out of our public spaces then come back and look at it again.”

This motion comes as a result of a lawsuit that has been recently filed over a needle exchange program in Santa Cruz. In that case a neighborhood group is challenging a state program on the grounds it bypassed local authorities and has insufficient environmental review. The courts initially ruled in favor of the needle program but on appeal, the case has been allowed to proceed to trial.

The local discussion item was instigated by Mayor Gleam Davis, Negrete and Councilmember Phil Brock and the unanimous vote by Council will determine if the proceedings in Santa Cruz can, in any way, affect any change within the City of Santa Monica.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my child in one hand and I’m walking a foot away from someone shooting up. Not okay. Because we’re protecting those kids across the street. They should not have to walk over from school with their lunch bags and see someone shooting up across the street from school. That’s not okay. So that’s why we’re having this conversation today,” Councilmember Christine Parra said.

City Attorney Douglas Sloan said the first step in any process will be determining what process should have applied in Los Angeles County and if those rules were followed.

“If the science dictates that we should resume this [syringe exchange program] with public input, police input, our resident input then fine, but until then, I think we need to pursue this course of action,” Brock said.

Councilwoman Caroline Torosis asked if the city had any evidence that the program had decreased overdose calls in the city since its inception.

City Manager David White replied, “Through our Fire Department … we do track overdose activity in the city of Santa Monica … we saw an elevated level of overdoses, particularly in 2022, it’s been a consistent increase …consistent with LA County.”

Torosis, who was not part of the council when the initial opposition letter was filed, said she had reservations despite her vote in favor of the study.

“I’m going to vote yes on this,” said Torosis, adding, “But I’m going to echo that there’s robust data for over 30 years that this is a harm reduction strategy and I think it’s a question of manner and place in terms of where we do it.”

scott.snowden@smdp.com

Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.