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Needle Exchange Volunteers File Suit Against Alameda County


April 1995

Three needle exchange volunteers have filed suit against Alameda County health officer Barbara Allen to establish a legal needle exchange program (Elaine Herscher, "Lawsuit Seeks To Legalize Needle Swaps," Mar. 15, 1995, p. A18).

Scott Halem, Ricky Bluthenthal, and Amy Shutkin are three of the five needle exchange volunteers who were acquitted on drug paraphernalia changes on Mar. 9 (see "Legal Problems for Oakland's Needle Exchange Continue; Five Needle Exchange Workers Acquitted," NewsBriefs, Mar. 1995). The lawsuit would force Allen to establish a needle exchange program and seeks to exempt her from prosecution on drug paraphernalia charges. [Amy Shutkin is a long-time member of the National Drug Strategy Network. -- EES.]

Allen declared a state of emergency in the county and has endorsed needle exchange, but has not moved to start a county-run program, citing fear of prosecution. Other counties in California have refused to prosecute needle exchange volunteers, but none have started their own program yet.

"She did declare a state of emergency, but she's handed the needle exchangers the ball," said William Simpich, the Oakland attorney for the plaintiffs. "She's asking them to break the law, and that's nonsense."

In addition to the three volunteers, the suit lists the taxpayers of Alameda County as plaintiffs. Simpich will argue that the cost of treating the average AIDS patient ($150,000) overburdens taxpayers and can be greatly reduced through needle exchange.