California should bring its HIV law in line with science, and Gov. Brown can help

Grant Colfax
Grant Colfax

As director of the Office of National AIDS Policy under President Barack Obama, I witnessed great progress in the fight against HIV. Effective treatments have improved and prolonged the lives of people living with HIV. And HIV-negative individuals can take medication to reduce their risk of acquiring the virus. But some laws have not kept up with these advances, resulting in continued stigma and unfair prosecutions.

Senate Bill 239 by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and Assemblyman Todd Gloria, D-San Diego, is part of a national movement to reform outdated HIV criminal laws, and I urge Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it. Most of these laws were passed in the late 1980s when there were no effective treatments for HIV and fear about the disease was widespread. It’s not a surprise, then, that these laws reflect an outdated understanding of HIV. Under some of these laws, people living with HIV can face felony prosecution even if they engage in safer-sex behaviors, including using condoms and taking medications that suppress the virus.

SB 239 would align California’s law with contemporary knowledge of HIV. Based on 2014 guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice, it would address exposure to HIV in the same way as exposure to other serious communicable diseases. SB 239 also will safeguard against reckless behavior by maintaining criminal penalties for intentionally transmitting or attempting to transmit HIV.

SB 239 will not lead to more HIV infections, or affect the safety of the blood supply. Nor will it prevent public health officials from keeping communities safe. SB 239 is supported by virtually every major public health organization including the California Medical Association and Health Officers Association of California. They understand that criminalizing people living with communicable diseases will push them into the shadows.

Progress toward ending the HIV epidemic has accelerated. San Francisco recently reported the lowest number of new HIV diagnoses ever and many jurisdictions are developing plans to “get to zero” new infections. Outdated HIV criminal laws work at cross-purposes with these efforts.

Grant Colfax is director of the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services,