Sacramento - Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger approved a bill Monday that could allow California pharmacies to sell hypodermic syringes without a prescription, signing clean-needle legislation that former Gov. Gray Davis twice vetoed.
Schwarzenegger cited a growing body of research that has shown access to sterile needles reduces the spread of viruses like HIV in a one-page letter explaining his signature.
The new law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, requires local governments to approve the idea before sales begin.
The Republican governor's move added to his image as a far more liberal thinker on social issues than his party. Most Republican legislators had voted against the measure, SB1159, authored by Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara.
But public health and drug policy activists said Schwarzenegger was implementing a common-sense measure similar to laws in 45 other states.
"Anything that expands access is really key to fighting AIDS and hepatitis and saving lives," said Fred Dillon, public policy director of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, one of the sponsors of the bill.
Opponents like the California Narcotic Officers' Association argued that the idea encourages illegal drug use and could increase the number of contaminated needles left in public places.
The measure would allow pharmacies or doctors to sell up to 10 syringes to anyone 18 and older in cities or counties where local elected officials approve.
Many Bay Area cities and counties that already have government-run needle distribution programs are expected to sign off on the idea.
Dr. Mitch Katz, San Francisco public health director, said he expected the city's Board of Supervisors to approve an ordinance allowing the sales.
State health officials will have to evaluate the effects of the law, which expires in 2010. Pharmacies will be required to distribute information about drug addiction treatment and safely disposing of needles.
Advocates who have long pushed for the deregulation of needles in California argue that the scarcity of clean needles contributes to the high rate of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C cases.
The diseases can be transmitted when drug users share contaminated needles, and statistics Schwarzenegger noted suggest 1,000 Californians become infected with HIV every year from dirty needles.
A widely cited study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2001 found that HIV rates among injection drug users were twice as high -- 13. 8 percent versus 6.7 percent -- in cities that did not allow prescription-free needle sales.
The law allows California to catch up with most states in the country, and Schwarzenegger is hardly the first Republican governor to approve the idea.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson signed similar legislation in 1989, while New York Gov. George Pataki did the same in 2000 as groups like the American Medical Association have come to support needle deregulation.
"This has been long and late coming in California," said Glenn Backes of the Drug Policy Alliance, which pushes for liberalization of drug laws. "It really should have happened as soon as it was clear that people were getting AIDS from sharing needles."
The Schwarzenegger administration had asked for amendments requiring local approval, so it was not a complete surprise that the governor approved the bill.
But the signing marked a personal triumph for the termed-out Vasconcellos, who had steered two other versions of the measure through the Legislature only to have it rejected by Davis, who had agreed with opponents' concerns.
Schwarzenegger made one other move regarding needle programs, however, that upset some health advocates.
He vetoed AB2781 by Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Eureka, that would have lifted a requirement that local governments declare a state of emergency every 14 to 21 days to continue needle exchange programs.
The programs provide free needles, but some local officials have complained about having to continually declare a health emergency to keep the programs going.
Schwarzenegger said he was willing to talk about the issue further, but wanted to continue to require local officials to determine the program's need.
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