More than 30 activists from Fresno, the Bay Area and Stanislaus County converged outside the downtown Modesto courthouse Monday to protest criminal charges against two people accused of handing out clean syringes and collecting dirty ones from drug addicts in a Modesto park.
Kristy Tribuzio, 36, and Brian Robinson, 37, face up to a year in jail for breaking a law they consider to be immoral.
People held signs reading "Public Health Over Politics" and chanted in favor of dropping the charges. They excoriated local elected officials, pointing to a decision by the county board of supervisors in September 2008 to nix legalizing needle exchange over the recommendations of health officials.
"It should be a health issue, not a political issue," said Dallas Blanchard, 45, whose needle exchange program in Fresno was approved just over a year ago.
"By treating it as a political issue, we're just allowing people to die," he added.
Tribuzio and Robinson's defense team planned to argue Monday that the pair were acting out of medical necessity: that conducting a needle exchange program was a justified act aimed at saving lives and preventing such diseases as HIV and hepatitis C among drug users. A judge pushed back the hearing until March 1.
Prosecutors see it differently. They say the two knew what they were doing was illegal.
"Simply put, the defendants are charged with violating the law," Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said.
Local critics, including District Attorney Birgit Fladager and Sheriff Adam Christianson, said a needle exchange program in Modesto would enable drug users to continue their addiction.
In California, there are more than 40 needle exchange programs, but the Central Valley has just three, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.