By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
At 6:30 sharp on a Thursday night in mid-October, a crowd gathered quickly at the entrance to 6769 Lexington Ave., a half-block east of Highland in Hollywood. Aside from the shuffling of feet and the usual sniffles brought on by the plummeting temperatures of an early fall evening, there was little commotion until a couple of minutes past the half-hour, when a skinny guy in a watchman’s cap and overalls began to bang insistently on the door. ”Hey, man, you guys gotta open up!“ he shouted. A minute or two later, a young woman with a ring of keys came downstairs, and the ”clients,“ as they‘re called by the volunteers of Clean Needles Now, filed into a line that stretched up the stairs and spilled into the tiny space where volunteers manned a few folding tables.
A woman sat down at one of the tables to answer a basic set of questions: Birth date, which drug she injects, whether she’s tried the new ”one-hit kit,“ which comes complete with a sterile cooker and gauze. About half the clients are heroin addicts, according to volunteer Shoshanna Scholar; another 30 percent inject speed. ”We‘re starting to see people injecting crack cocaine, too,“ she said, ”which is really bad, because crack has to be cut with some sort of acid.“ Some people use lemon juice, which often leads to serious infection. ”So we give them pharmaceutical-grade ascorbic acid instead. It’s cleaner and safer.“
The woman at the intake table was missing her front teeth. ”I need to know something,“ she told Peggy Roman-Jacobson, the resident legal advocate for Clean Needles Now. ”Can my employer refuse to let me work because I lost my dentures? Is that legal?“
”I suppose it is,“ said Roman-Jacobson apologetically. ”They can‘t discriminate against you for other things, but they can still be jerks.“
At the back of the room, Terry Hair, a small woman in pigtails and sneakers, rushed about opening boxes of needles and emptying bags of candy into bowls. ”One cc or a half?“ she shouted to someone in the line.
”Twenty-seven one cc,“ answered a young man who arrived holding his boyfriend’s hand.
”Do you need anything else?“
”Yeah. Condoms. Banana-flavored.“
”This is like the morning rush in a restaurant,“ said Hair. ”It‘ll settle down in an hour.“ She was right: By 8 p.m., the place was quiet.
A pharmacist by trade, Hair is the current executive director of Clean Needles Now, a harm-reduction effort founded in 1991 by a group of local activists to arrest the spread of blood-borne illnesses among people who inject drugs. The program has been funded by the city of Los Angeles since 1994, when Mayor Richard Riordan, spurred on by a precipitous rise in hepatitis C and HIV infections among the 100,000-plus injection-drug users in Los Angeles County, declared a citywide state of emergency, allocating funds for needle exchange and revising the legal status of the program to ”illegaltolerated“ (needles obtained from other sources are illegal under the federal paraphernalia law).
Needle-exchange programs used to be controversial; Barry McCaffrey, the Clinton administration’s drug czar, turned down then--Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala‘s 1998 request for federal funding by claiming clean-needle distribution ”sent the wrong message to children.“ But such bizarre logic has mostly been routed from the medical establishment. Needle exchange is now regarded as a necessary adjunct to the overburdened public health system, where injection-drug users often feel unwelcome. (Clean Needles Now maintains a grisly series of photographs called an ”abscess gallery“ to document the clients who have come in with untreated sores.) Needle exchange also makes it feasible for injection-drug users to safely dispose of used syringes, many of which would otherwise end up in trash cans.
Clean Needles Now currently operates in nine locations in Los Angeles, including curbside sites at Pico-Union and in Venice and indoor sites on Skid Row, working in concert with other social-service nonprofits such as Common Ground and the Los Angeles Catholic Workers. The Hollywood outpost of the needle exchange has been operating eight hours a week, on Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons, since April of 2001 above the Friends Research Center, where it relocated after having been ousted from its storefront location on Cahuenga Boulevard by a gentrifying landlord. But this particular Thursday would be the last here, too: Thanks to an effort by proponents of the Hollywood secession movement, including former Hollywood VOTE president Ferris Wehbe, the landlord of the building had ordered Clean Needles Now to leave.
”It was either that or face a long legal battle, which nobody wanted to do,“ said Hair. ”But if these people think that getting rid of the needle exchange is going to turn Hollywood into a Disneyland with no homeless people or poverty, they’re dreaming.“
According to Hair, the trouble began less than four months ago, when Kevin Butler wrote a story in the Los Angeles Independent noting that the needle exchange was located within 600 feet of Wehbe‘s Little Red Schoolhouse day-care center, a possible violation of a Los Angeles statute about the location of drug-treatment facilities. Needle-exchange programs are not technically regarded by the law as drug-treatment facilities, but Butler investigated anyway, interviewing residents and merchants about a perceived ”dramatic upsurge in drug use, prostitution and drug-related crimes.“