Needle delivery services for drug users will be available in Santa Ana after the state approved a syringe exchange program on Tuesday.

The announcement comes despite the city’s continued objections over the program, with officials citing threats to public health and general safety concerns. 

The program was approved by the California Department of Public Health from an application by the Harm Reduction Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on reducing and preventing drug use in Orange County.

The nonprofit will be authorized to provide delivery of syringes and pickup of used syringes to private homes, tents, RVs and other non-traditional forms of housing.

State officials said the organization will not be allowed to deliver syringes to unhoused individuals near playgrounds or schools. Syringe exchange programs exist to help prevent transmission of blood-borne infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The program in Santa Ana faced plenty of pushback from local and county officials in years past. From 2016 to 2018, the Orange County Needle Exchange Program operated in Santa Ana and handed out thousands of free syringes to at least 12,000 people under a permit approved by the city.

County officials later deemed the program a failure after they say many of the needles ended up in homeless encampments at the Santa Ana Riverbed and the Civic Center. 

Discarded hypodermic needles and syringes were also found at public buildings, libraries, streets, sidewalks, residents’ lawns, parks, waterways and more, city officials said.

County employees removed 14,000 needles they said were potentially contaminated with infectious diseases while cleaning a four-mile stretch of public land. Following additional complaints from local parents, educators and law enforcement officials, the program was shut down.

Santa Ana City Manager Kristine Ridge and Police Chief David Valentin sent a letter of opposition to the California Department of Public Health over the program, citing numerous concerns and the program’s “dire effects.”

Following a county lawsuit, in November 2018, a judge blocked the nonprofit’s plan to run a mobile needle exchange program in four Orange County cities, citing inadequate resources to collect or clean up the distributed needles. 

The court found that one needle exchange provider could not account for 250,000 syringes that it handed out but never collected. 

In 2020, the Santa Ana City Council approved a citywide ban on needle exchanges, a decision in which city officials said the state has now undermined. 

“This needle exchange threatens the health and safety of our children, families and neighborhoods,” said Santa Ana Mayor Valerie Amezcua. “I am greatly disappointed that the state health department would override our local government authority to protect our community. Opioid addiction is a serious issue devastating communities throughout the United States, but once again, Santa Ana is the only Orange County city being asked to shoulder this countywide responsibility.”

To address the city’s concerns, the state’s public health department said it will provide funds to “conduct syringe litter clean-ups and decrease the incidents of syringe litter in public spaces” while increasing community engagement and education on proper syringe disposal.

No official launch date for the Santa Ana needle exchange program has been announced.

City officials said they will be closely monitoring the program’s operations and will share more information, including how to report discarded syringes found in public.

“For people who inject drugs, the best way to reduce the risk of acquiring and transmitting disease through injection drug use is to stop injecting drugs,” said CDC officials. “For people who do not stop injecting drugs, using sterile injection equipment for each injection can reduce the risk of acquiring and transmitting infections and prevent outbreaks.”

Syringe service programs create an estimated 50% reduction in HIV and HCV incidents, the CDC reported.

The programs also serve as a bridge to other health services, including HCV and HIV testing and treatment and medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder.