Pubdate: Sat, 01 Dec 2001
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2001 Los Angeles Times
Author: Tina Dirmann, Times Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


There are many things Bobby wishes he could undo in his life--lost family 
ties, years in prison, a 30-year heroin addiction.

But he is quick to share the one thing he has done right.

He doesn't share needles. On Thursday, he was one of the estimated 50 
addicts who showed up at the Rainbow Alliance's weekly syringe exchange 
program, where they can trade used needles for clean ones. No hassles. No 
questions asked.

"Thank God for this place," said Bobby, who asked that his last name not be 
used. Rail-thin, he clutched a small brown paper bag containing 14 new 
syringes from the Ventura-based program.

"I know I'm already slowly committing suicide," he said. "But I am worried 
about AIDS. AIDS scares me."

Ventura County authorized syringe exchange programs to operate in the 
county last December, though the Rainbow Alliance program has only been 
operating since September.

The controversial decision, in this decidedly conservative county, added 
the group to a growing list of cities and counties across the 
state--including the cities of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and, just this 
month, San Diego--to launch such programs.

And while Orange County supervisors are staunchly opposed to the idea of 
handing out syringes, in 1994 they approved supplying bleach kits with 
instructions for proper needle cleaning.

"I'm very gratified this is happening," said Dr. Robert Levin, Ventura 
County's public health officer and the driving force behind the plan. "It 
is serving a positive change in this county, and that's been the experience 
nationwide. There are fewer dirty needles appearing on the street because 
now they have value--they can be exchanged."

It's too early to tell what, if any, effect Ventura County's new program 
has had on AIDS and hepatitis C. But Levin and other advocates are hopeful 
it will have the same results as in Hawaii, which began syringe exchanges 
in the early 1990s. By 1994, HIV infection rates among drug addicts there 
dropped from 5% to 1.1%.

In Ventura County, 19% of men with AIDS trace the disease to shooting up 
drugs. For women, that number jumps to 45%. And half the county's drug 
users have hepatitis B or C.

Program advocates are well aware of the criticism that comes with supplying 
tools to inject illegal drugs.

Ventura County's Board of Supervisors passed the program on a 4-1 vote, 
with Supervisor Frank Schillo voting no. He said he refused to "continue 
the threat to the community and to continue the use of drugs."

But Danette Banyai, a former HIV and drug counselor for the county, who 
hands out syringes at the alliance headquarters in Ventura, said it's not 
just drug users who will suffer if they contract a fatal disease.

"Drug users can transmit the disease through sexual contact," Banyai said. 
"So often times, the person who ends up with the disease didn't do the deed 
to contract it."

She also tries to get people to see drug addiction as a disease and the 
exchange program as one more way to beat it. "It's not a moral choice," 
Banyai said. "These people are not bad people. And if the average person 
can understand that better, then they can better understand what we're doing."

Alongside the cardboard boxes of needles are rehab pamphlets. Volunteers 
also stand by offering confidential and free HIV and hepatitis C testing. 
Of the 43 people who used the exchange program in October, 13 had an HIV or 
hepatitis C test and eight asked for a drug rehab referral. And 583 dirty 
needles were dumped.

Visitors also frequently take handfuls of the free condoms on display.

"We're seeing behavior changes," said Sam Gill, a program volunteer who 
kicked a heroin and cocaine addiction 14 years ago. "They're getting 
tested, using condoms. People who said they used to share needles before 
don't now. And if they want to get into recovery, it's a lot easier if they 
don't also have to fight a life-threatening disease."

A 23-year-old Ventura woman hooked on heroin for the past two years brought 
two friends to the exchange Thursday. The trio dumped off 60 dirty needles 
in exchange for 60 clean ones. That is the deal. A one-for-one exchange. 
She said they all know the dangers of sharing needles. But before the 
program began, they all shared.

"A couple of times we've had to do that," said the woman, who supports a 
habit of a gram of heroin a day. Her boyfriend is addicted, too. "I'm so 
glad they opened up here. It's a lot cleaner."

Program coordinators said they had to delay launching the syringe exchange 
until September because they didn't have the money.

The already financially strapped Rainbow Alliance in Ventura runs the 
program but receives no county funding for supplies or personnel. The cost 
of syringes, about 10 cents each, comes out of Rainbow's budget, made up of 
grants and donations. And everyone working for the program is a volunteer.

Still, organizers would like to see the fledgling program expand to Oxnard 
and Santa Paula and, eventually, in the east county.

But again, the problem comes down to dollars.

"We have the volunteers to man the sites," Gill said. "We just need someone 
to donate the space."

They would also like to copy the programs in Los Angeles, where volunteers 
travel by van to areas hardest hit by drug addiction. For now, they rely on 
fliers at methadone clinics, liquor stores and laundry facilities to get 
the word out about the clinic, which operates between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. 
every Thursday.

Even Bobby is helping, often leaving with his new needles--and a handful of 
fliers to give to friends.

"We all talk about it, about disease, HIV, hep C," said Bobby, slowing 
shaking his head. "We know, we know. We just don't need it."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens