A needle exchange program will now receive Fresno County taxpayer support.
Dr. Marc Lasher, president of the nonprofit San Joaquin Free Medical Clinic and Needle Exchange, told the Fresno County Board of Supervisors that more lives are affected by drug use now than in the last 20 years.
Every Saturday since 1994, the volunteer-based clinic operates out of a bus for two hours near Roeding Park. They provide more than just clean needles — other services include medical support, food, and drug treatment referrals.
Now, the clinic will move indoors at the county Dept. of Public Health building in downtown Fresno at 1221 Fulton Street. The supervisors voted 3-2 on Tuesday for a $0 lease with the clinic — a two-year pilot program that Lasher says has already saved the public money.
“This move will definitely make it a lot safer in our community for people to get access when they have a problem,” Lasher said. “This is coming out of the alleyways and into mainstream medicine. And therefore, it goes from charity to public responsibility.”
Lasher says the clinic exchanges up to 20,000 needles a week.
Supervisor Brian Pacheco praised the clinic during debate, acknowledging the needle exchange portion was the “anchor” suppressing public support in the past.
A recent visit to the clinic changed Pacheco’s perception.
“This program grants access to medical care to the most vulnerable and the most underserved in our community, and does so with dignity and respect,” Pacheco said. “I believe you’re saving lives.”
Sal Quintero and Buddy Mendes joined Pacheco in voting yes; Steve Brandau and Nathan Magsig voted no.
Clinic Saves Thousands
“This move will definitely make it a lot safer in our community for people to get access when they have a problem.” — Dr. Marc Lasher
Lasher said in the last year, the clinic has seen 289 patients — saving the public $1,000 each from an ER visit. The clinic saved the public another $200,000 performing incisions and drainages.
Supporters say providing a needle exchange programs helps reduce incarceration and leads to healthier outcomes.
Dr. John Zweifler, with the clinic, said needle exchange programs promote the use of clean needles, and reduces bloodborne pathogens by half.
Asked by Magsig if needle exchange programs reduces drug use, Zweifler said, “Does providing auto insurance encourage auto accidents? Do remedial reading programs promote illiteracy?”
Patients receiving new needles would not be allowed to use on site. There were no major opponents who spoke publicly.
Success of the Program
When the move indoors to the county office is complete — in about a month, Lasher estimates — it will still operate just on Saturdays, but double the hours. The clinic will now operate from noon until 4 p.m. The clinic will offer shuttle services to the new office.
Lasher says one of the goals of his needle exchange program is the health of drug users.
“People in their addiction, they’re going to do what they’re going to do, and we just want them to be safe during that period of time and also meet with a health professional as opposed to their connection on the street in providing sterile needles and also edging them on into treatment,” Lasher said.
Over the years, Lasher’s program has issued 15,000 doses of Narcan, receiving 2,200 reports of drug overdose reversals.
For most of the clinic’s 20 years of existence, it relied on donations to fund the program. For the last three years, it received state funds.