October 12, 2011
The operators of the Fresno Needle-Exchange Program (FNEP) say newly signed legislation will help legitimize the underground group, making it easier to attract funding and expand services.
Last month, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors voted against official approval of FNEP, which has operated since 1994. But AB 604, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday, gives the state authority to sanction an exchange when the California Department of Public Health identifies a health risk, and local governments are not willing to give their consent.
"Currently, all it takes is one complaint from an overzealous resident to get us shut down," said Dallas Blanchard, director of FNEP. "Having this legislation removes that fear. ... Now we can look forward."
FNEP will soon seek state approval, a process that could take a year or longer. But program organizers are confident they will get the green light.
"Fresno has the highest per-capita injection drug use in the nation. Clearly, there's a need," said Dr. Marc Lasher, who has provided free health care at FNEP for the past 14 years.
Blanchard said the exchange will resume its search for a permanent site in central Fresno, plans that were tabled after the county supervisors declined to back the program. In addition, FNEP will work to expand its outreach and collaborate with other service providers.
While FNEP organizers await state approval, they will take advantage of another new law that goes into effect Jan. 1. SB 41 permits doctors and pharmacists to dispense up to 30 syringes per person for the purpose of disease prevention; the law sunsets in 2015.