Caption: Gleam Davis holds up a fentanyl testing kit that the county hands out with needles in their exchange program after Phil Brock complained that the county doesn’t just hand out these kits and anti-overdosing drugs.

At last night’s City Council meeting (Agenda, Video, Item 16J) the Council voted 4-3 to instruct staff to write a letter to Los Angeles County to demand the county end its syringe exchange program in Santa Monica parks. For one hour a week, the county offers a program at Reed Park where drug users can exchange used needles for clean ones and receive NARCAN or naloxone (to be used to reduce the impacts of overdose or death) or fentanyl testing strips.

Mayor Phil Brock, Vice-Mayor Lana Negrete, and Councilmembers Christine Parra and Oscar de la Torre voted in favor. Councilmembers Gleam Davis, Jesse Zwick and Caroline Torosis voted against. In addition to asking the county to end the program, it also affirmed the city’s support for needle exchange programs in other, less public, spaces such as clinics or shelters.

Much of the debate between the Councilmembers focused on whether or not the members believed reporting done at the county, state and federal level about the value of meeting addicts where they already are to offer services or to have them somewhere else. The United States Center for Disease Control writes that needle exchange programs help reduce infections and provide a key method for social workers and addiction counselors to meet with and eventually help people suffering from drug addiction.

Parra opened the debate by recounting stories over the past decade of dodging needles while walking in Reed Park and encounters with people using drugs. During a lengthy testimony that served both as a rebuttal and an exhaustive review of studies and materials about exchange programs, Gleam Davis noted one of the major issues in relying on anecdotal data: that if often misleads. The needle exchange program has not been in Reed Park for a decade, so the problems Parra is concerned with don’t actually have much to do with the program.

During her speaking time, Davis presented data from different government agencies at many levels including the county and the White House and everything in between. During her time she also displayed the fentanyl testing strips and naloxone packages that are distributed with the needles. Based on the number of naloxone distributed, the program is saving 12 lives every month.

 “This program saves lives in Santa Monica,” Davis pleaded with her colleagues. “We’re charged as the City Council with doing what is right, not what is popular.”

But Davis’ pleas were not enough to move her colleagues who either put their own experiences ahead of the data (Parra and Negrete), didn’t necessarily believe the data because governments lie (de la Torre) or had seen different data, that was much better data that Davis’ data, that he’d love to share with us, but oh look it’s getting late (Brock.)

In the end, it was de la Torre who made the final motion and added the language about what the current council majority supports and not just what they opposed. In a somewhat rambling statement that included the aforementioned distrust of government, de la Torre admitted that he just couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that handing out needles to drug users would save lives no matter what a government study said.

“If we had an epidemic with people shooting themselves in the head, it wouldn’t be a good idea for the government to give out handguns,” he argued. De la Torre went on to note that Reed Park is close enough to a school that it couldn’t be a site for a marijuana dispensary, and was baffled that a needle exchange program could go where a dispensary couldn’t.

The last debate point was by Mayor Phil Brock who argued against needle exchange programs at all, before saying he supported them as long as they were indoors and not near children. Without naming him, he quoted enforcement-first advocate Michael Shellenberger who has risen to fame as a right-wing talking head who critiques Democratic politicians as one of the people who has informed his views on drug addiction.

“We are helping to kill people,” he charged of the needle exchange program.

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