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Does Manteca need a needle exchange program?
Jason Campbell

It was every parent’s worst nightmare – a child finding an uncapped syringe on the Roberts Estates  playground just south of Sierra High and picking it up with their bare hand.

It is a park, by the way, in the middle of a 16-year-old middle class neighborhood that the homeless have not been known to frequent.

Fortunately for all involved in the beyond unfortunate incident last week, nobody was stuck with the needle. The incident, however, did ignite a firestorm of controversy online when Mayor Ben Cantu weighed in on the matter and frustrated residents fired off a range of missives at him over the state of things in the city. 

Cantu issued a number of clarifications to his initial comments, which he said were taken out of context, so there’s not much need to rehash any of that information. What is even more pressing, however, is the issue of needles being discovered by children in city parks and what is being done to prevent situations like the one that unfolded from happening again. And, from what I can tell, everybody has an opinion on the matter but few viable solutions. 

The easiest way to make sure this doesn’t happen again is to simply demand that intravenous drug users dispose of their used needles properly and in a manner that best preserves the health of the public. But, as anybody with a shred of common sense will tell you, that isn’t going to do much if anything to stop the problem from getting even more out of hand than it already is. So, other solutions need to be sought.

It’s abundantly clear that the City of Manteca doesn’t have the money to hire the roughly dozen police officers that Cantu says are needed. Such an undertaking would cost more than $1.8 million annually in salary and benefits alone, and that’s before any training or equipment costs are factored into the equation. That kind of money typically isn’t just laying around to be claimed in municipal budgets, let alone being available year-after-year unless specific funding sources are identified. And that means that without new development sufficient enough to pay for the new officers – which will then require even more new officers to keep up with the formula – the only other way to hire that many police officers will be to raise taxes. 

And we all know how well that goes over. 

But, as the cost of housing continues to skyrocket across California – apartment costs in places that were previously considered housing havens like Modesto have gone up more than 50 percent over the last decade – and more and more people are forced out onto the street, issues with drugs and those who use them will continue to be something that everyday citizens have to face. There is no easy answer to how to combat this problem – a housing crisis coupled with the income inequality of the Central Valley coupled with a lack of adequate and easily-accessible mental health services means that we do have a crisis on our hands, and it’s a crisis that won’t be going away on its own. 

But, in my opinion, there is something that we can do to at least try and cut down on the amount of dirty needles that are floating around in the community because the tongue-in-cheek idea expressed earlier about asking addicts to pick up their dirty needles obviously isn’t going to do much good – and it’s not a very popular idea amongst those who believe that addicts should just simply stop using drugs and all of our problems will miraculously go away. 

We – and by “we” I mean the wider San Joaquin County area, and perhaps even the state as a whole – need to seriously look into the idea of needle exchange programs. 

Critics of this will say that it’s simply giving a pass to bad behavior, and that taxpayers shouldn’t have to shoulder the cost of a drug abuser’s poor habits, but data has shown that some of these programs are quite successful at cutting down on the spread of harmful infections that end up costing taxpayers in the long run anyway with medical care and coverage and give social workers and programs the chance to identify their target population to try and clean people up. 

I commend Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman for getting behind the effort to establish safe injection sites in California – where drug users can inject drugs in a controlled environment under medical supervision to cut down on the number of overdoses and allow people to request help if necessary. No politician is out there actively trying to get more people hooked on dangerous and destructive drugs, but people like Eggman took the risky political move of recognizing that even addicts are people to that deserve an opportunity at a fruitful and productive life. 

I’m sorry for those who disagree, but “let them all overdose and die” is an inhumane way of looking at your fellow man regardless of how much you disagree with the life choices that person happens to be making. This isn’t a time to let “God sort them all out” as some people have so eloquently – and callously – stated on social media, but a time for compassion or understanding. 

With that said, it’s also a time to understand and appreciate the frustrations of residents who are dutiful and commendable in their actions and simply want to be able to take their children to the park without having to worry about them getting poked with a dirty needle. It’s also unfair for those people to have to worry about that, and when a parent drives by a park with their child and has the time to stop and let them do what they love to do most – be a child – and has to keep on driving because they’re concerned for their long-term wellbeing, then we also have to take a look at that. 

I personally feel that a needle exchange program – where people only have access to clean needles if they bring back their dirty ones – is a simple first step towards getting control of an out-of-control situation while more meaningful, long-term solutions are worked out at a local and regional levels of government. Even if it prevents one person from contracting a virus like HIV – either knowingly or unknowingly – I feel that the program would pay for itself and ultimately benefit all residents. 

By the grace of God that young man in the park didn’t stick himself with the syringe.

Now is the time that we do something to make sure the next story isn’t the one where the opposite is true. 

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.