Santa Barbara County’s needle exchange program has distributed 120,000 clean needles since the program began at the Pacific Pride Foundation in June 2000.

The program – only one of eight in California run by county governments – allows intravenous drug users to exchange used needles for new ones at no charge and aims to help curb the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, while maintaining total anonymity for its participants, said Rafael Cosio, director of HIV education and prevention at the Pacific Pride Foundation.

“There really is a huge problem, much bigger than AIDS, here in Santa Barbara County,” Cosio said.

The program was founded after Gov. Gray Davis signed Assembly Bill 136 in 1999, which allowed city and county governments to designate private agencies to run medical programs that cannot be funded by state monies, like the needle exchange.

Cosio said the inability to use public funds has proved a major obstacle, but the Pacific Pride Foundation has been able to operate the program through donors and several grants, including the George Williams Fund and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS foundation.

“We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had a good relationship with these foundations. The program keeps growing; we get more people every week. Santa Barbara can be proud of itself that it has a good amount of people that support a program like this,” Cosio said. “[The opposition is] very little. … A lot of people fear it is going to increase drug use and violence, but it never does.”

Jayne Brechwald, director of health promotion for Santa Barbara Public Health Dept., said the idea that needle distribution encourages drug use is not supported by recent research.

“We have a very enlightened community and the Board [of Supervisors] has been supportive of it,” she said. “Our hope is that there has been a reduction in the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.”

Intravenous drug users – including members of the transgender community undergoing hormone injections and athletes using steroids – use the needle exchange program, Cosio said.

“UCSB students use the program, as well as Santa Barbara City College students. Santa Barbara is a small town – I see people who come in walking around a lot,” he said.

Ian Kaminsky, an Alcohol and Other Drugs counselor at the UCSB Student Health Center, said there is a large population in Isla Vista who use intravenous drugs and could benefit from the exchange.

“I don’t think IV users who go to the UC – and that could be for a variety of drugs – know about the needle exchange program,” he said. “I don’t think IV drugs are as big of a problem in Isla Vista as alcohol or marijuana … but in my experience, it’s a much bigger problem than people think it is – it’s a bigger problem than people want to believe. I also work at a hospital, at Cottage Hospital, and I see people come in who have overdosed and some of them are UCSB students.”

Kaminsky said the use of dirty needles is a larger problem for addicts than for people experimenting with drugs.

“I think the issue becomes a big concern when people start to run out of drugs – when people are just experimenting, I don’t usually see them using needles,” he said. “People’s standards change when they become addicted – and that can happen in three months. At that time, they don’t have the ‘I’m not doing it if it’s not sterile’ attitude.”

Cosio said the state is also considering a bill that would deregulate syringes, by allowing pharmacies and licensed health care professionals to sell them without a prescription.

“It gives pharmacies the ability to sell needles, but it doesn’t obligate them to. It’s definitely a positive step because California is one of only five states that still requires a prescription to buy a syringe. The bill is awaiting consideration by the Assembly Health Committee – it still has a long way to go,” Cosio said.

“It won’t affect Pacific Pride because it would be a money-making thing. … It’s good, but it’s not a huge step because people use our program because it’s free of charge and it’s private and confidential – actually anonymous,” he said.

San Luis Obispo County and Ventura County are both trying to develop programs like Santa Barbara’s needle exchange, but are struggling to do so due to lack of funding and controversy.