The Pacific Pride Foundation has recently expanded its current Syringe Exchange Program in Santa Barbara County to Santa Maria.

The program, which has been in effect for two years now, provides intravenous drug users with a safe haven for the exchange of used syringes for new ones, free of charge. Rafael Cosio, PPF Director of HIV Education and Prevention, said the program has been a tremendous success since its initiation in the county.

“We are currently serving over 120 clients per week in the North and South County,” he said. “A good number of people will send one person in to get a bunch of syringes for five or 10 people, so we don’t actually see that many people coming in.”

Initially, the struggle to get the program started did face some challenges, Cosio said, including legalizing the distribution of clean syringes.

“During the peak of the HIV years in the late ’80s and early ’90s when hundreds of people were being diagnosed with and dying from HIV, a large number of people became infected by sharing syringes,” he said. “Out of this came a number of underground needle exchange programs in big cities to prevent further spread of the infection. It’s like the idea that condoms are a way of preventing STDs. The syringe exchange is a way to prevent the spread of disease.”

Cosio said many factors contributed to the acceptance of syringe exchange programs, including advocacy, campaigning and lobbying.

“There was concern that if you give away needles it will encourage use,” he said. “Lots of studies also came out proving that the existence of a needle exchange program does not affect the use of the drug. Study after study done in major cities, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles show evidence that an exchange program doesn’t increase drug use or crime. There is no correlation.”

Support from Gov. Gray Davis made it possible to pass AB 1292, which legalized syringe distribution for drug use, Cosio said. The law contains a clause that states any syringe exchange program cannot be funded by public money, so PPF has relied on generous donations from private donors – most importantly, the Tides Foundation, a nonprofit organization that donates money to causes its directors deem worthy.

“Fortunately we built great relationships with donators who pretty much support the program,” he said. “The Fund for Santa Barbara donated an emergency grant, which ultimately saved the program from shutting down a while ago.”

Cosio said such syringe exchange programs save money in the long run.

“It costs $25,000 for medication and treatment alone for an HIV patient per year. Preventing infection without using public money really makes a difference,” he said.

Santa Barbara is one of eight counties in the state to have a legalized program, which Cosio said is significant because Santa Barbara is such a conservative area.

“This is a double-edged sword. You build it and they will come. All those people who were hiding in the woodwork with their addiction had to develop a comfort before coming in,” Cosio said. “We have built a tremendous relationship with intravenous drug users. They come into a place where they won’t be judged or frowned upon because of their drug use. They really are turned away from everywhere in society.”

Cosio said most people would be surprised about who are the users in the community. PPF caters to people from blue-collar plumbers to white-collar businesspeople.

“We have had quite a few success stories, too, of people who after using for years have had their first HIV test or have sought our help for rehabilitation programs,” he said.

PPF provides clients with syringes, as well as sterilized wipes, cotton, sterilized water and other materials that make intravenous drug use safer. If requested, they also make counseling referrals for addicts.

The free, anonymous service can be utilized every Wednesday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at PPF, located at 126 East Haley St., upstairs, Suite A-11.

Cosio can be reached by e-mail at .