California sues El Dorado County, Placerville following ban on drug needle exchange programs

California is suing this county and city for banning drug needle exchange programs

EL DORADO COUNTY – Leaders in El Dorado County and the city of Placerville have found themselves at the center of a lawsuit filed against them by California Attorney General Rob Bonta and Jennifer Bunshoft, representing the California Department of Public Health.

The state is suing the county and city governments after both recently banned drug needle exchange programs. 

In December 2023, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance that prohibited certain drug harm reduction services, like needle exchanges, from operating in the county. The Placerville City Council followed in the county's footsteps, passing its own ban earlier this year in February. 

Vern Pierson, the district attorney for El Dorado County, called the state's lawsuit "unusual" and even "madness."

"We are going to fight it with every ability that we have," said Pierson. 

He told CBS13 that he stands by the county's ban on the syringe exchange programs. 

"We essentially are normalizing the use of hardcore drugs," said Pierson. "We looked at it and said it's not necessary here. We have low crime and want to keep it that way. We think this is poor public policy."

Pierson and El Dorado County Sheriff Jeff Leikauf both urged the board of supervisors to pass the ban.

"I will continue to tirelessly fight programs that hand out hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia to our community members," said Sheriff Leikauf to the Board at a Dec. 5, 2023 meeting.

At the same meeting, Supervisor Lori Parlin spoke against the harm reduction programs as well.

"We have evidence of them not doing education, they've been witnessed just handing out paraphernalia and that is not what they are supposed to be doing," Parlin said.

The lawsuit filed by the state claims both El Dorado County and the City of Placerville in their bans "adopted unlawful ordinances" that are "preempted by state law."

"No. We disagree with them," Pierson argued.

The DA says he does not believe they have broken any law, saying counties have a right to protect their people.

"This whole thing is fraught with problems that have failed in San Francisco, and now the state is suing El Dorado County to say, 'We are going to force this on you as well,'" Pierson said.

The state's suit argues that scientific data has for years proven that needle exchanges and other harm reduction strategies work.

The lawsuit reads, "...the exchange of used hypodermic needles and syringes for clean hypodermic needles and syringes does not increase drug use in the population..." adding that the programs "...can serve as an important bridge to treatment and recovery from drug abuse" and can "...curtail the spread of HIV among the intravenous drug user population."

Pierson disagrees with their stance.

"'Don't believe your lying eyes' is what they are telling you," Pierson said. "It is absolutely absurd for them to say it doesn't increase drug use, yet, it has increased drug use. Take a look around in cities around the state of California."

Pierson said that while the news of the lawsuit came as a shock, El Dorado County and the City of Placerville will fight this in court, calling it frivolous, but something they won't back down on.

"In a state teeming with homelessness, crime, drug addiction, and overdose deaths, how dare they sue us in defense of 'public health'? The first principle of medicine is "Do No Harm", and we have local data that proves that a syringe exchange program has indeed caused much harm in El Dorado County. We will protect our community and I will always support measures which prioritize and safeguard the wellbeing of the citizens of El Dorado County," said Wendy Thomas, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors chair, in a statement.

CBS13 reached out to both Attorney General Bonta's Office and the affected syringe exchange program Sierra Harm Reduction Coalition for comment on this story and has not yet heard back.

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