California: L.A. County Trails in Needle Exchange

Los Angeles County pharmacies distributed fewer than 5,000 syringes in 2007 under a state program designed to stem the spread of blood-borne diseases. In comparison, San Francisco's pharmacies, though far fewer in number, sold nearly 14,000 syringes, according to a new study by California State University-Dominguez Hills (CSU-DH).

The five-year pilot program, whose goal is to remove barriers to clean needle access, began in 2005. Statewide, 650 pharmacies in 15 counties and four cities have registered with local governments, a program requirement, and can sell up to 10 syringes with no questions asked. The California Department of Public Health funded the CSU-DH research.

In 2007, CSU-DH researchers surveyed pharmacies in San Francisco County and in selected areas of Los Angeles County, regardless of whether they had registered for the program. A total of 67 San Francisco pharmacies and 171 in selected regions of Los Angeles were polled.

Among the surveyed drug stores, just 28 percent of Los Angeles pharmacies had signed up for the program, compared to 76 percent in San Francisco. Of all pharmacies in L.A. County, just 17 percent have registered to take part.

"What surprised me the most was that pharmacists [in San Francisco] were more open to speaking with us, to give us time, than those in Los Angeles," said Chaka Dodson, a CSU-DH graduate student who helped oversee the study. L.A. County pharmacies "were very uneasy, and seemed pretty suspicious."

Almost half of Los Angeles pharmacies surveyed said they did not sell syringes out of fear of being robbed or harmed by drug users, Dodson said. They also were more likely to turn away suspected drug users and less likely to provide information on proper needle disposal, disease prevention, and drug treatment.

The study, "Pharmacy Participation in Non-Prescription Syringe Sales in Los Angeles and San Francisco Counties, 2007," was published in the Journal of Urban Health (2010;87(4):543-552).