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Legal Problems for Oakland's Needle Exchange Continue; Five Needle Exchange Workers Acquitted


March 1995

Despite directives from the city council to make arrests of needle exchange volunteers and clients the lowest priority, Oakland police have arrested another a volunteer and two clients of the Alameda County program (Steve Stallone, "Another Needle Bust," San Francisco Bay Guardian, Feb. 22, 1995, p. 11).

On Feb. 14, at a meeting of the Oakland City Council's Public Safety/Health and Human Services Committee, Alameda County Health Officer Barbara Allen said that needle exchange programs are effective in stalling the spread of HIV and should be a part of Oakland's overall public health plan. She said she would help the city council by declaring a public health state of emergency, which would not override the state law prohibiting the distribution of needles, but would allow the city council to take the issue to state court. (See "Oakland City Council Members Volunteer Help, Offer Support to Needle Exchange Program," NewsBriefs, Feb. 1995).

After the meeting, the Oakland police responded to an anonymous 911 call and arrested an Alameda County Exchange (ACE) volunteer and two clients of the program. According to Pamela Drake, an aide to Councilmember and chair of the Public Health Subcommittee Nate Miley, Police Chief Joseph Samuels called the city council the following day about the arrest. He said that he believed the call to be a setup, and he had instituted a new policy for callers reporting complaints about the needle exchange program. In order to file a complaint, the callers must now leave their names and phone numbers, and agree to be part of a citizens' arrest.

At the Feb. 14 meeting, Health Officer Allen said the Sacramento County needle exchange was experiencing problems similar to those of Oakland's (Associated Press, "Sacramento Needle Swap Ruled Invalid by Court," San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 25, 1995, p. A18).

Sacramento County had declared a public health state of emergency and the county in effect sued itself over the issue. On Feb. 24, Superior Court Judge James Ford ruled that the county's needle exchange law did violate the state's 1981 drug paraphernalia law. The California state legislature has passed bills to allow needle exchange, but they have been vetoed by Governor Pete Wilson (see "Legislature Passes Medical Marijuana, Needle Exchange Bills; Wilson Vetoes Them," NewsBriefs, Sept./Oct., p. 5).

In other news about the Alameda Needle Exchange, on Mar. 9 five volunteers were acquitted of charges of possessing hypodermic needles (Ben Charny, "Needle Swappers Acquitted, Oakland Tribune, Mar. 10. 1995, p. A-15). The defendants, Scott Halem, Amy Shutkin, Camellia Anacabe, Ricky Bluthenthal, and Tom Reddy, argued that to not distribute clean needles was more damaging than breaking the law.

In just three hours the jury delivered not guilty verdicts on all fifteen counts against the five defendants. One of the jurors even told the Tribune after the verdict that she had become so convinced during the trial that needle exchange is necessary that she plans to volunteer for the program.

[NewsBriefs congratulates Amy Shutkin, a long-time member of the National Dug Strategy Netowrk, and her co-defendants for their courage and public service. -- EES]

[For more information about the Alameda County Needle Exchange, contact Scott Halem at 510-540-7430, Bill Simpich, Esq. at 510-444-0226, or the AIDS Prevention Action Network at 1406 Madison Avenue, Redwood City, CA, 94061, 415-369-0330.]