A group of Santa Cruz residents filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Sacramento County Superior Court to stop the Harm Reduction Coalition of Santa Cruz County (HRC) from continuing its syringe exchange services.
Launched in 2018, the nonprofit HRC—and “harm reduction” programs in general—operate on the philosophy that providing clean supplies such as syringes to drug users will prevent the sharing of dirty needles, and thereby stop diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C.
The group, which operates with about 45 volunteers, also collects used syringes from public places throughout the county and installs sharps containers in several places, then empties them when full.
HRC is one of 59 organizations authorized by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to operate a syringe service program (SSP). Organizers say theirs works in conjunction with Santa Cruz County’s SSP.
The lawsuit, which also names the CDPH, alleges that the agency erroneously approved HRC’s syringe services program on Aug. 7.
HRC’s needle exchange program, the lawsuit states, “poses a serious threat to the health and safety of the citizens of Santa Cruz County.”
The lawsuit additionally alleges that HRC’s program violates the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) because they did not perform the “environmental review needed for the distribution, collection and disposal of used needles.”
Orange County and residents of Chico have successfully sued CDPH on similar CEQA grounds.
The lawsuit further alleges that HRC’s operations have led to a “significant” rise in the number of discarded needles found in Santa Cruz County, a charge that founder Denise Elerick has long refuted.
Instead, Elerick says, HRC helps numerous drug users and has removed tens of thousands of needles from public spaces. The group also refers drug users to county programs.
Elerick points out that the clients HRC serves have an abiding distrust of authority figures and of the medical community. Her organization, she says, has bridged that gap by garnering the trust of the people who live on the “outskirts of society” and who would not otherwise seek out harm reduction services.
“We are trying very hard to mitigate the harms of substance abuse in the county,” Elerick said. “Until people are housed, and as long as people use syringes there will still be syringe litter.”
CDPH was served with notice of the lawsuit Tuesday at 5pm, Elerick said, but as of Tuesday afternoon, HRC had not been served.
The legal action came as no surprise, Elerick said.
“We’ve been planning for this for months,” she said.
In an email from HRC, several doctors, other medical professionals and community leaders signed a statement of support for the organization. This includes former county Health Officer Dr. Arnold Leff, Santa Cruz County Board of Education Trustee Bruce Van Allen, and Health Improvement Partnership Executive Director Elisa Orona.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Grant Park Neighborhood Association, a group named for the park located about a 15-minute walk from the collection of medical buildings on Emeline Avenue that houses the county’s Syringe Services Program and Mental Health Services, among other things. The lawsuit, however, did not name Santa Cruz County as a defendant.
The Grant Street neighbors and prosecuting attorney David Terrazas, a former Santa Cruz City councilmember, did not return a call seeking comment by deadline. The plaintiffs include Councilmember Renée Golder and former Police Chief Kevin Vogel.
Neighbors say they frequently find syringe litter scattered throughout their neighborhood and in the park.
In addition, neighbors have seen an increase in used needles in the Pogonip open space near the Harvey West neighborhood, one of the places where HRC operates.
The lawsuit states that HRC’s program operates “in direct conflict” with the county’s SSP because it allows untrained volunteers to perform its services.
“Such actors have no responsibility to abide by state regulations, let alone the norms of community safety and concerns,” the lawsuit alleges.
In a press release, HRC calls the lawsuit “disheartening,” and says it could worsen the Covid-19 pandemic that is tying up many public health resources.
“This is frankly an outrage,” said Dani Drysdale, who runs HRC’s syringe services program. “We are neck-deep in fighting a pandemic alongside all the other work we do; we are an established service provider with the backing of the highest public health body in the state, and every single one of our volunteers and staff are already working themselves to the bone to save lives in a time of unprecedented crisis.”
Elerick says that her group receives support from Santa Cruz County, and in fact has performed many of its functions at the request of county health officials. This includes installing sharps containers in porta-potties throughout the county, and emptying them when needed.
The group recently received two “Well-Being Awards” from Santa Cruz’s Community Prevention Partners for its work.
“We know the data shows that programs like ours reduce these problems,” Elerick said. “We’re part of the solution. Without programs like ours there would be more syringe litter.”