WATSONVILLE—The future of Santa Cruz County’s syringe services program was in the community’s hands this week.

In two meetings held by the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency in Santa Cruz on Nov. 14 and Watsonville on Tuesday, officials asked attendees to outline what questions and concerns they have, and how they would shape the controversial program.

More than two-dozen people filled a conference room in a county-run building on West Beach Street, where facilitators led several small-group discussions to delve participants’ attitudes about syringe distribution, and the services connected to it.

The events were strictly listening sessions, held to gather information for the Santa Cruz County Supervisors as they shape the Syringe Services Program. 

That board on Tuesday approved the formation of the county’s first Syringe Services Program Advisory Commission, which will oversee the program. The supervisors are set to discuss the program and hear the results from the meetings on Dec. 10.

The main themes that came from the Tuesday session were clear, said Health Services Agency Assistant Director Marc Pimentel: many people lack a clear understanding of the county’s syringe services program and want more transparency and community education.

Many also said they want to see a tracking program, so syringe litter can be more easily traced back to its source.

In hosting the sessions, county officials were careful to separate themselves from the Harm Reduction Coalition of Santa Cruz County, an unsanctioned group that also hands out syringes to drug addicts.

The session in Watsonville drew a diverse cross-section of people, from Watsonville Fire Chief Rudy Lopez and Police Chief David Honda to business leaders such as Bill Hansen and Chuck Allen.

It also drew Benjamin Mendoza, a recovering drug user who said he was disappointed that more like him were not at the meeting.

Syringe services programs, he said, are essential to reducing diseases transmitted by dirty needles.

“If it wasn’t for this program, there would be much more worse things happening,” he said. “I know it.”

Still, Mendoza said that the limited syringe services in Watsonville have prompted him to drive people to Santa Cruz to take advantage of the syringe services there.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “My people are dying out there.”

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