AIDS activists offered up 1,100 used hypodermic needles on the steps of the Department of Health Services building Tuesday to call for support of a needle exchange program and to protest what they say is the county's slow response to the AIDS crisis.
Almost as a measure of their dedication, ACT UP activists bragged before the noon protest that they intended to get arrested for possessing the syringes, a misdemeanor without a prescription in California.
San Diego police, however, declined to arrest any of the 17 protesters.
"We don't have this problem (of not being arrested) in Los Angeles," said Janice (Cookie) Pemberton, a member of the L.A. chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. "Here, we want to be arrested; we are begging to be arrested."
Police seemed uncertain about how to proceed when activists presented three containers full of used needles.
"This is not a routine occurrence for us," said Lt. Christopher Ball. "AIDS and the reuse of needles is a significant social problem that we understand. . . . We are not going to go out actively seeking anyone involved in the needle exchange program and arrest them."
But Ball said officers would make arrests if they came across individuals passing out needles. "We do not have a hands-off policy," he said. "If this sounds like a mixed message, I understand that."
The protest was prompted by an Assembly bill that would allow clean needle and syringe exchange pilot programs across the state. Activists maintain that providing drug users with sterile needles, in exchange for used ones, stops the transmission of human immunodeficiency virus, which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Carriers of the virus can infect their peers by sharing contaminated needles.
Activists have launched needle exchange programs in New York, Hawaii, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Boulder, Colo., and New Haven, Conn. Many of these programs operate as law enforcement authorities look the other way. Last year, researchers in New Haven estimated that the HIV infection rate fell by a third in the first eight months after their exchange program began.
But activists in San Diego say that the county Department of Health Services has shown little interest in such programs. John White of ACT UP/San Diego said he hoped Tuesday's demonstration will help inform county health officials that "the value of saving a life is greater than the illegality of possessing a needle."
For months now, on most Saturdays, members of ACT UP have distributed sterile needles and collected the used ones.
"We feel increased access to clean needles reduces the length of time that used needles remain in circulation," and reduces the risk of transmission, said Mike Mullowney, the president of the Being Alive organization. "As an HIV-infected person myself, I say we need to do whatever we can to stop infection."
As part of the protest, White read an open letter to Dr. William Cox, health services director.
"The county of San Diego public health authorities, and you in particular, have ignored the situation in which injection drug users find themselves: without access to clean injection equipment," White said. "Injection drug users must risk infecting themselves with HIV. Your lack of concern for this population is appalling."
Cox was not in San Diego Tuesday and was unavailable to comment.
Dr. Donald Ramras, deputy director of the department, said county officials are concerned that providing needles might encourage drug use. There have been no studies to indicate whether supplying needles encouraged drug users, he said.
Because of this dearth of information, Ramras said, the county did not favor participation in needle exchange programs.
"We don't think the time is now," he said. "We're saying even if the bill was in effect tomorrow, we'd recommend caution. . . . We wouldn't recommend it."
Ramras said the financially strapped county has done its best to accommodate the population of AIDS and HIV-infected patients. He pointed out that the county has allocated $12.5 million for AIDS-related activities. Further, he said, San Diego was one of the first counties to offer anonymous HIV testing.
"I understand the anguish," he said. "But am I supposed to stop the TB program, which affects everybody? Am I supposed to stop immunizations? I certainly would like more funds."
In San Diego County, 3,333 cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome were reported as of May 31. Among the 3,168 men stricken with the disease, 84% are homosexual or bisexual, and 7% are intravenous drug users.
Among the 165 women afflicted, 36% are heterosexual and 33% are drug users, according to the county records.