Pubdate: Wed, 01 Mar 2000
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2000 The Washington Post Company
Address: 1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: Paul Schwartzman, Washington Post Staff Writer


Plan Proposal to Limit HIV Spread Could Encourage Drug Abuse, Pastors Say

A proposal to create a needle exchange program for intravenous drug users
in Prince George's County is stirring debate among religious leaders who
are concerned that it will cause more illegal drug use.

In interviews, several county-based pastors said they have serious
reservations about a program being considered by the Prince George's County
Council that would let drug addicts exchange dirty syringes for clean ones
as a way of curtailing the spread of AIDS and HIV-related illnesses.

"Oh, my Lord," said the Rev. John B. Jenkins of First Baptist Church of
Glenarden when told of the proposal. "They're going to give people needles
so they can do something illegal? I can't support that."

The Rev. Anthony Maclin, pastor at Glendale Baptist Church, said he wants
to learn more about needle exchange programs and understand why some health
experts advocate them. But the pastor also said that his main priority is
to end drug use.

"In my opinion, it's like trading in a used gun for a new gun," said
Maclin, whose church has 3,500 parishioners. "Do I have some reservations
about this? Yes, I do."

But the Rev. Jack Marcom of Fort Washington Baptist Church said he chooses
to focus on the purported health benefits. If the program means that there
are fewer dirty needles circulating, he said, so much the better.

"I don't like the drug problems, I don't like the drug culture, but we have
them, so I can't sit here and wish we didn't," Marcom said. "It's too late
to be preventative, except to prevent what kinds of diseases dirty needles

The opposing views echo the ongoing debate within the council as it
considers legislation proposed last month by council member Thomas R.
Hendershot (D-New Carrollton).

As part of the review, council Chairman Dorothy F. Bailey (D-Temple Hills)
took the unusual step of organizing three public forums that will focus on
the legislation. The forums will take place tonight and tomorrow night.

"It's an educational forum. It's a chance to hear from the community,"
Bailey said.

But council sources said that Bailey also wanted to give the county's vast
religious community a formal setting in which to express what is expected
to be opposition to the proposal.

Although two of the council's nine members - Hendershot and Vice Chairman
Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood)--strongly support the legislation, two
members - Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville) and Isaac J. Gourdine (D-Fort
Washington) - are opposed.

"It sends a mixed message," Maloney said. "The first is, just say no to
drugs. The second is, we're going to help you pursue your drug habit."

Other members said they are unwilling to pledge support until they have
measured public sentiment.

Council member M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Croom), a possible candidate in the 2002
county executive's race, said he will not back the proposal if he thinks
that large segments of the county are opposed.

"I can see some merit to it, but I can't see dividing the community over
it. It's not worth going to war over," Estepp said. "If you're going to do
something good for the community, then you need community support for it.
If half the people fear it will open up drug use and facilitate that, I
don't think it's worth it."

But Hendershot and Shapiro argue that the needle exchange is a proven way
of slowing the spread of AIDS. "It's the right and moral thing to do,"
Shapiro said.

County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), who has not taken a position on the
legislation, first raised the issue last fall when he asked the council to
assess Prince George's County's need for a needle exchange program. Curry's
request came after the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation
allowing the county to implement such a program as a way to combat the
spread of AIDS.

Prince George's had 3,267 AIDS cases last year, second in the state behind
Baltimore, which had 19,693, according to statistics furnished by the
county health department. County officials estimate that 30 percent of the
AIDS patients are intravenous drug users.

Health officials contend that the needle exchange program has helped reduce
Baltimore's HIV caseload by 35 percent since 1994.

But that statistic is not likely to convince the likes of the Rev. Betty
Peebles, senior pastor at Jericho City of Praise, although she said she
will study the proposal.

"I'm open to complete abstinence and whatever we can do to get the word
going that young people really need to think twice," Peebles said. "I look
at it from a moral point of view, but I must not forget that there are
people we must look out for."

The forums:

Today: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Langley Park Community Center, 1500 Merrimac
Dr. in Langley Park.

Today: 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Spaulding Library, 5811 Old Silver Hill Rd. in
District Heights.

Tomorrow: 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Union Bethel AME Church, 6810 Floral Park Rd.
in Brandywine.
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