Fresno County’s needle exchange program draws severe opposition from city officials

City and county officials are sparring over the county’s decision to bring the needle exchange program in house on Saturdays in downtown Fresno.

City of Fresno officials are calling on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors to reverse a decision to allow a drug needle exchange program to operate in a county building in downtown Fresno on Saturdays. 

Fresno County is standing by its decision, however, arguing that the city had enough time to make its concerns known and that the program is an overall plus in the fight against drugs. 


The backstory: Last week the Board of Supervisors on a 3-2 vote approved the Harm Reduction Pilot Program, which will move the needle exchange program from near Roeding Park to the Fresno County Department of Public Health building located on Fulton St. in downtown Fresno. 

  • It was a stark reversal by the county from its stance 12 years ago. In 2011 the county washed its hands of the program and tabled a plan that would have given it a permanent home in a facility, rather than continuing on like it has in a mobile clinic. 
  • The program will operate at the Department of Public Health on Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. 
  • Around 20,000 needles are exchanged each week at the mobile clinic as around 150-200 people take advantage of the program every week. 

The big picture: Monday, Mayor Jerry Dyer joined Councilmembers Miguel Arias and Garry Bredefeld to voice their concerns that the program will be a blight on downtown Fresno and be contrary to the city’s revitalization efforts and mission going forward. 

  • Specifically, city officials took issue with the county not reaching out to the surrounding businesses to gain input before making a decision to bring the program in. They fear that drug users will be sprawled out on Fulton St. waiting in line to exchange needles. 
  • City officials also took issue with the county not reaching out to the city beforehand for input. 
  • Dyer specifically cited his concerns about any future investors looking to build housing in downtown, fearing that they will be scared off due to an increased presence of drug users. 
  • Bredefeld called out the program for providing pipes as well as needles, saying it actively encourages more drug use. 

The other side: Hours after city officials held their press conference downtown, Fresno County responded with one of their own at the site near Roeding Park to assuage any fears of the program. 

  • County officials said the Department of Public Health has plenty of space, meaning all drug users will be able to wait inside the building and will not be lining Fulton St. 
  • They also responded to the lack of input given to the city, saying the program was listed in a public board briefing report online on Aug. 14, well before the vote on Sep. 5. The county is also meeting with businesses in the surrounding area in the coming weeks, although county officials said they did not seek input from those businesses before the vote.
  • Fresno County Administrative Officer Paul Nerlund said he would have appreciated a direct call from Dyer to discuss the city’s issues and concerns, saying it doesn’t help when the communication comes from a press conference. 
  • County officials also confirmed Bredefeld’s assertion that the program hands out drug pipes in addition to offering a needle exchange. 

What they’re saying: “It’s complete insanity and misuse of taxpayer money,” Bredefeld said. “The county and the Board of Supervisors think that this is such a brilliant idea they have now committed even more county resources to this destruction and brought it into the Public Health Department. Frankly, in my opinion, the Board of Supervisors are a complete disgrace.” 

  • Arias said he was “pissed off and angry” with the county’s decision, saying the county has become an accessory to drug dealers and will facilitate the slow death of addicts. 
  • “Instead of providing our residents with shelters and treatment programs, the Board of Supervisors has become the drug dealer’s assistant by providing free needles and crack pipes that will kill them slowly,” Arias said. “If the Board of Supervisors truly believes that free needles and crack pipes to addicts reduces harm, what’s next? Shall we expect them to start providing free opiates to kids to reduce the harm of fentanyl? Is that the next logical step for the Board of Supervisors.” 
  • Dyer added, “The decision is wrong, especially in light of the attention downtown has gotten this last year where we have been able to be granted an award by the state for $250 million to be able to revitalize downtown followed by $43.7 million to revitalize our downtown. I have to believe that perhaps they were in a vacuum, in a cave not realizing all these revitalization efforts that are ongoing.” 
  • At the county’s press conference, Fresno County Public Health Director David Luchini said, “This is a public health program with critical human services all within one public health building. And with that, once again in Public Health and our partners here, doing nothing solves nothing, and this is another way we’re trying to solve issues that are impacting our community.”
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