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A bevy of city officials showed their support today for reinstating a clean-needle exchange program, which ceased last year at a time of unparalleled political unrest in San Diego.

The officials, led by Mayor Jerry Sanders, touted a program that would allow the Family Health Centers of San Diego to change out used hypodermic needles for clean ones. It will be voted on Tuesday by the City Council.

Supporters of the program claim that exchanging dirty needles reduces the risk of spreading HIV or hepatitis by providing an incentive for users to turn in the needles for proper disposal; opponents see the distribution of needles – which are often used for injecting illegal substances – as condoning drug use.

“This program helps educate substance abusers about complicated issues that are connected to drug abuse,” Sanders said. He was joined by the city’s fire and police chiefs, city attorney and two council members, among others.

For now, the Family Health Centers collects used needles, but does not exchange them for clean ones. It operates the program out of a trailer that is stationed sporadically in North Park and downtown’s East Village neighborhood. The Alliance Healthcare Foundation sponsors the program in its entirety.

“This is not some radical program that is unique to our region,” said Sanders, who noted that 150 cities in the nation have similar programs.

After operating for three years, the program failed to garner the City Council votes needed to keep it running last year. The resignations of Michael Zucchet and Ralph Inzunza – both supporters – left the council one vote shy of extending the program last July.

The council regularly had to pass a resolution to keep the program running, something it was unable to do with a shorthanded council. In the past, council members Scott Peters, Toni Atkins, Tony Young and Donna Frye have shown support for the program. Councilmen Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer have opposed it.

Councilmen Kevin Faulconer and Ben Hueso filled Zucchet and Inzunza’s seats in January. Hueso has signaled support for the needle-exchange program; Faulconer is reportedly still contemplating the issue.

James Dunford, medical director of the city, endorsed the program’s purpose, saying that studies show that program combats the spread of disease without increasing drug use.

Dunford said needle-injected drug use accounts for one-third of all HIV infections and the two-thirds of the cases of Hepatitis C, which he referred to as the “epidemic of the millennium.”

We’ll be following this issue over the next week, so stay tuned.

EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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