Beth Wehrman, an Iowa and Illinois harm reduction worker and Registered Nurse who last year gained notoriety as the "Peoria Needle Lady" after town officials there passed an ordinance barring her from doing street-side needle exchanges (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/236.html#peoria), was arrested last week in nearby Pekin, IL, on syringe possession charges after police received a complaint of "suspicious activity" where she was going about her work.
But Wehrman told DRCNet Thursday evening that the charges had been dropped after the Tazewell County Attorney Stewart Unmolz conceded that her activities were protected under Illinois criminal code provisions that provide an exemption for public health workers engaged in research activities. Under an agreement with the Chicago Recovery Alliance (http://www.anypositivechange.org), all needle exchange participants in Wehrman's Lifeguard Harm Reduction Services program (http://www.lifeguardonline.org) provide data for researchers tracking HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C infections.
"The police chief isn't happy," Wehrman told DRCNet, "but I plan on talking to him to explain what I do, and I hope to speak with police officers at roll call there. They may not like it, but they have to accept it. They have to understand that even in Pekin there is a really high hepatitis burden. The needle exchange is needed so people can protect themselves."
Police pulled her over on her way out of town, Wehrman said, but didn't seem to know quite how to deal with her and her car full of dirty needles and prevention materials. "It took the cops 20 minutes to come back and tell me to follow them to the station, and the lieutenant on duty seemed convinced I was a drug user," she related. "He asked me three times which drugs I was using."
Pekin police eventually decided to charge her, Wehrman said, noting that she was never fingerprinted or given a Miranda warning. She didn't even realize she had been arrested until receiving a call the next day from a reporter who had reviewed police logs, she added.
Wehrman vowed to return to Pekin, "although I don't think I'll go to that same spot," she said. "Gosh, in my book this is pure and simple harassment, and we just have to keep on going on," she said. "Maybe the cops will come around."
Now, if only Wehrman can get the same cooperation in Peoria. When that city last May passed an ordinance requiring needle exchanges to take place in buildings, Wehrman searched for a suitable location, but was unable to find a landlord willing to rent to her. "I don't do exchanges on the street anymore; I go to people's homes and distribute syringes. Some of those people become secondary distributors. It's not like having a building, but it does build up involvement and participation by the affected community."