Sharply divided

Needle proposals in Chico, Oroville underscore broader differences

Protesters before the Feb. 18 Chico City Council meeting demonstrate discontent with syringe access locally.

Protesters before the Feb. 18 Chico City Council meeting demonstrate discontent with syringe access locally.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Last Thursday afternoon (March 12), the Chico Area Recreation and Park District (CARD) called a special board meeting. That in itself isn’t so unusual, given how the coronavirus crisis has prompted public agencies to reassess their operations on short notice over the past week. What set this meeting apart given present circumstances: Coronavirus wasn’t on the agenda.

The CARD directors met to consider the impacts on their parks of potential changes to city ordinances, slated for consideration Tuesday (March 17) by the Chico City Council—a meeting the council canceled during an emergency session the afternoon CARD met.

Proposed by Vice Mayor Alex Brown, these revisions of the Offenses Against Public Property ordinance, adopted in 2015, include syringe possession. CARD prohibits needles—i.e., “drug paraphernalia”—in any of the facilities it owns or operates. Brown’s proposal, to align city code with state law, would delay until next year enforcement of city regulations against possessing needles without a medical reason; this violation can carry a charge of either a misdemeanor or an infraction.

Teri DuBose, president of the advocacy group Citizens for a Safe Chico, urged CARD to oppose the ordinance changes. She’s been a vocal detractor of the syringe access program, operated by the Northern Valley Harm Reduction Coalition (NVHRC), posting Facebook messages that include photos of needles she says she’s found in various places around town. In prepared comments to the CARD board, she said: “Well, we’re handing them out by the hundreds, so why have any restrictions against them?” (DuBose declined to speak to the CN&R.)

CARD directors decided unanimously to reaffirm their agency’s rules and, on a 3-2 vote, formally oppose the city changing the ordinance.

This division in Chico mirrors a split in Butte County, and the state, on the acceptance of syringe access programs. Cities such as Oroville are pushing back with ordinances banning them; other jurisdictions—Orange County and several of its cities—have fought in court.

The Oroville City Council took the first step toward a citywide prohibition by introducing the ordinance at a special meeting March 10. That advanced with support from both conservative and progressive council members.

Oroville City Administrator Bill LeGrone told the CN&R that the council will hold a public hearing “one way or another” April 7. That could feature partial or complete attendance via teleconferencing. He said council members tell him “they’re getting nothing but positive feedback” on the ordinance.

“This is not a statement about what any other community is doing or is not doing,” LeGrone added by phone Tuesday. “This is merely our council saying for our community that they do not feel this type of program is a good fit for us.”

California legislators in recent years passed a series of Health and Safety codes, notably HSC 121349, that allow health departments to authorize services where “the conditions exist for the rapid spread of HIV, viral hepatitis, or any other potentially deadly or disabling infections that are spread through the sharing of used hypodermic needles and syringes.”

The California Department of Public Health determined Chico to have this risk and authorized NVHRC. Myriad research has proven needle access reduces disease—for instance, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 studies found syringe programs to be “associated with decreases in the prevalence of HIV and [hepatitis C] and decreases in the incidence of HIV.”

CDPH told the CN&R by email that it “consults with the county public health officer and local law enforcement leadership” during its review process for authorizing programs. That’s per state law and the case for NVHRC’s Chico application.

By press deadline, CDPH did not answer whether it has challenged another city’s ban. Oroville City Attorney Scott Huber, a Roseville-based public law specialist, explained that the Orange County jurisdictions won their lawsuit under the California Environmental Quality Act and that the final ruling documents indicate CDPH did not contest other legal issues.

The cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange ban needle exchanges. The Chico City Council has not opposed NVHRC, though City Manager Mark Orme told the CN&R in an email that City Attorney Andrew Jared will give the council his legal opinion on its latitude under state law the same day Oroville next considers the issue.

Huber said by phone that he knows his assessment could differ—“if lawyers didn’t disagree, there never would be any cases that go forward.”

The California Attorney General’s Office told the CN&R that it’s “unable to provide legal advice or analysis,” deferring to CDPH, which also gave no definitive answer.

Huber said cities have the right to permit or prohibit uses of land in any and all areas within their boundaries. Unless a law specifically overrides a local ordinance, the local rules stand. Huber said, in his reading of HSC 121349, legislators did not preempt municipalities on this matter.

Tom Lando, CARD board chair and a consultant with Oroville’s city administration, said he supports both CARD’s push—which he voted for—and Oroville’s.

NVHRC has ramped up efforts to curtail syringe waste, such as distributing and emptying “sharps” disposal containers (see “‘In a healthier place,’” Healthlines, Nov. 21). Established in July 2018, the nonprofit has long conducted community cleanups and provided health services.

“My own belief is it is inappropriate, regardless how you feel about exchange programs, to have needles in parks,” Lando said. “I personally don’t agree on the path the city [of Chico] has taken,” he added—concurring with Oroville’s assessment that “it’s perfectly legitimate to say, ‘We’re not doing a needle exchange in our community.’

“Two different opinions.”