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Gov. signs bills expanding drug users' access to sterile syringes

Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday signed two bills that will expand access to sterile syringes for drug users in an effort to combat the spread of hepatitis C and HIV.

The first bill, SB41, written by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), allows people to buy syringes at pharmacies without a prescription. California was one of the few states where this was illegal, other than a few pilot program areas.

The second bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), allows the state to authorize needle exchange programs in areas deemed high risk for the spread of disease.

As the bill made its way to the governor's desk, the issue was playing out in real-time in Fresno, which has one of the highest rates of IV drug use in the country.

In September, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors voted to back away from a plan to legalize a longtime needle exchange even though county health officials warned that new infections of HIV and hepatitis C were climbing.

Dr. Marc Lasher, who runs a free medical clinic in conjunction with the Fresno needle exchange, vowed to continue the program despite the county's ban.

"We're legal again!" Lasher said Monday. "This allows us to do what's right health-wise for our patients and our community, and we'll never have to ask permission ever again from the Board of Supervisors."

The League of California Cities and some police organizations opposed the measure, saying it was taking away local control.

In his signing message, Brown said he is directing health officials to implement the law in a "constrained way, working closely not only with local health officers and police chiefs, but with neighborhood associations as well."


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-- Diana Marcum

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