Needle exchange: Judge rules on Bethany Place program

News-DemocratJune 25, 2013 

— A judge on Tuesday upheld an earlier decision that an AIDS service organization needs a special use permit to operate a needle exchange program.

St. Clair County Circuit Judge Robert Haida said he is "not persuaded" by the argument made by Mark Peebles, the attorney for Bethany Place.

Peebles asked Haida to reconsider an earlier decision because Bethany Place gets items such as syringes and needles from the state, and distributing such pharmaceuticals are covered by the city's zoning code.

Belleville City Attorney Garrett Hoerner said the city code Peebles is referring to existed at the time of the judge's initial ruling. So if the information was not considered previously, then it is not proper to consider it now, Hoerner said.

And, getting needles from the state and distributing the items does not make Bethany Place a part of the pharmaceutical packaging industry, Hoerner said.

The city has asked Bethany Place to apply for a special use permit and the group has not done so, Hoerner said.

Haida agreed that the city has mechanisms in place to address property use issues.

In April, Haida ruled the nonprofit at 821 W. A St. is located in a part of the city that is zoned a light industry district, which does not allow the dispensing of medical supplies and needles for intravenous use.

After the April decision, the city asked Haida to rule on whether the group should be fined.

Hoerner said Tuesday the city believes Bethany Place has been in violation of city code for 1,196 days. The fine could be more than $1.2 million, calculated from a $250 to $1,000 penalty for every day the group has operated the program.

Haida said Tuesday he is sure the city is not interested in fining Bethany just to enrich city coffers and he believes Bethany Place has operated in good faith while waiting for a court decision.

Haida said he will only consider fining the group if they violate city code from Tuesday forward.

Haida said he is concerned there is no way for the city to know if a violation has occurred because the city won't have a code enforcement worker "parked" at the business every day. He asked for a status hearing after 60 days to see if any violations occur.

Peebles said that after Haida's ruling in April, Peebles instructed Bethany Place workers not to operate the needle exchange program.

Bethany Place participates in a statewide needle exchange program aimed to prevent the contracting and spreading of blood-transmitted diseases. The program provides intravenous drug users with needles in exchange for safe needle disposal.

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert has said the city learned the program was in violation in 2012 after residents complained to the city about finding needles in their yards.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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