Supervisors to consider needle exchange program, cannabis businesses

The San Diego County Administration Center
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Tuesday’s agenda includes a syringe service program, Wednesday’s vote would allow growing and selling marijuana in unincorporated areas of the county


The San Diego County supervisors this week will consider allowing cannabis growers and sellers to operate in unincorporated areas and will vote on whether to support a needle exchange program for intravenous drug users.

The Board of Supervisors had considered similar proposals last year.

In March 2020, Supervisor Nathan Fletcher proposed the county lift its ban on needle exchange programs and develop a strategy to reduce harm for syringe users. The board instead voted 3-2 to form a subcommittee to work on the proposal and return it in a few months.

The subcommittee’s work was delayed by the pandemic, but supervisors are scheduled to consider a proposal Tuesday, Jan. 26 that would nullify the board resolution from December 1997 opposing needle exchange programs.

Currently Family Health Centers of San Diego operates the city’s only official needle exchange program, Safe Point San Diego. It has a mobile service that provides harm reduction education, case management, referrals to drug treatment and detoxification.

Last year Fletcher also proposed allowing cannabis businesses to operate in the unincorporated area. His motion did not receive a second from another board member last August.

A similar proposal will go before the board Wednesday, Jan. 27.

The composition of the board has changed markedly since that August vote. Once the only Democrat on the board, Fletcher is now its chairman and has been joined by fellow Democrats Nora Vargas and Terra Lawson-Remer, who were sworn in to the five-member board earlier this month, along with newly elected Joel Anderson, a Republican.

Fletcher has at least one supervisor already on his side. Vargas joined him for a press conference Monday morning, Jan. 25, in support of the cannabis proposal.

The proposal would be the first step to create a new ordinance and permitting system. It may not come back to the board until June.

According to a board letter Fletcher and Vargas signed, the new permitting process would prioritize social equity and create business opportunities for Black and Brown communities that were hardest hit by the crackdown on drug use.

“We know that many communities have been devastated by the war on drugs, and they have been disproportionately impacted by an inequitable criminal justice system, and we seek to move forward into a better future by trying to undo some of these past wrongs,” Fletcher said.

Armand King, chief operating officer for the nonprofit Paving Great Futures, said at the press conference that he is an example of overcriminalization in the Black community. He served three years in prison for crimes related to marijuana.

Now most legal marijuana businesses in San Diego are owned by White people, not minorities, advocates say.

“It is imperative that we look at this with a social equity lens and we truly, truly implement a social equity plan with everything related to cannabis,” King said.

Fletcher said Chula Vista, Encinitas, La Mesa, Lemon Grove, Oceanside, San Diego and Vista already allow cannabis businesses within their city’s borders, while the unincorporated area has allowed only five, which have permits that sunset in 2022.

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Department is kept busy shutting down illegal and unregulated cannabis businesses that keep opening in unincorporated areas, Fletcher said.

Vargas said legal and regulated cannabis would create a new revenue source for the county, which has spent millions of dollars on COVID-19 relief.

San Diego County Farm Bureau Executive Director Hannah Gbeh said farmers, who are facing many challenges in their industry, would welcome the new crop.

“Quite frankly, San Diego farmers want to grow cannabis,” she said at the press conference.

There have been detractors who said they feared cannabis would introduce youth to other drugs. Several people spoke against it at the August board meeting, and four people spoke in favor of keeping the ban at the board’s first meeting on Jan. 12, even though the item was not on the agenda.

— Gary Warth is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune