County backs new AIDS bill
By Tamara Grippi, STAFF WRITER
In an effort to cut down on the spread of AIDS, Contra Costa County
officials are backing a proposed state law that would make it easy to
buy syringes over the counter.
A bill sponsored by state Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-San Jose, would
allow pharmacies to sell up to 10 syringes to an adult without a
Supporters believe that making clean needles readily available would
reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C through intravenous drug use.
Last week, the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to
support SB 1159. The bill already has been approved by the state Senate
and likely will be heard on the Assembly floor next month.
"The most important thing is providing education, but obviously you
can't turn a blind eye to those who may share needles in the course of
taking drugs," said county Supervisor John Gioia of Richmond.
The county already spends $60,000 a year to support needle exchange
programs administered by a nonprofit group. In 1999, the Board of
Supervisors declared a state of emergency for AIDS cases among drug
Contra Costa is home to 950 people living with AIDS and about 550 who
have been diagnosed with HIV, said Christine Leivermann, county AIDS
But there is likely a substantial backlog of HIV cases not yet
documented by the county, since health professionals have been required
to report HIV cases only since 2002, Leivermann said.
Approximately 25 percent of the people living with AIDS in Contra
Costa point to intravenous drug use as the reason they contracted the disease.
The impact on women is even more profound, said Leivermann, noting 45
percent of women with the disease point to injection drug use or a
partner's injection drug use as the culprit.
The 5,000-member California Pharmacists Association has endorsed SB
1159, calling it an important bill.
"We see this strictly as a public health issue," spokesman Bill
Bradley said. "We definitely believe (this bill) can cut down on HIV and
Pharmacist Mike Clauser, who works at the Medicine Shoppe in San
Ramon, is somewhat torn about the proposed law. While reducing the
spread of AIDS is clearly an important goal, Clauser wonders about the
impact of making syringes readily available to the public.
"We would certainly be willing to do whatever government or society
in general decided is in the best interest," Clauser said. "It's just
hard for me to make a moral judgment on whether it would help or hinder
(the fight against AIDS)."
Leivermann noted that the proposed law would not require pharmacists
to distribute syringes. Those who choose to sell hypodermic needles
without a prescription would be required to register with the state
The bill is designed as a four-year test project that would expire at
the end of 2008. At that time, the state would evaluate the success of
the over-the-counter syringe strategy and decide whether to continue it.
Similar bills proposed by Vasconcellos were approved by narrow
margins in the state Legislature in 2002 and 2003, only to be vetoed by
then-Gov. Gray Davis.
Those bills would have allowed the purchase of up to 30 syringes at a
time, while this proposal limits the number to 10, said Sue North, chief
of staff for Vasconcellos.
California is one of only five states in the country that requires a
prescription for the purchase of a sterile syringe. So far, studies have
shown that improved access to syringes reduces the rate of HIV
transmission, according to North.
"People don't hang on to dirty needles the way they used to," North
As a result, the police officers, nurses, doctors and paramedics who
often deal with drug users, also will be safer, she said.
Tamara Grippi covers Contra Costa County. She can be reached at (925)
416-4882 or at