Pubdate: Tue, 20 Mar 2001
Source: New Zealand Herald (New Zealand)
Copyright: 2001 New Zealand Herald
Contact:  PO Box 32, Auckland, New Zealand
Fax: (09) 373-6421
Author: Martin Johnston, Health Reporter


Needle exchanges which supply more than one million needles and syringes a 
year to illicit drug users are considering a strike unless they get more 
money from the Government.

The 13 exchanges around the country supply taxpayer-subsidised needles and 
syringes directly to users and through pharmacies.

They also collect and dispose of used ones.

"We are not funded properly," Kelvin Richardson, a member of the Needle 
Exchange New Zealand Trust and manager of the Palmerston North exchange, 
said yesterday.

The strike could begin next month, but the exchanges would do it only 
reluctantly and after all other courses, such as meeting Health Minister 
Annette King, had been tried.

The Ministry of Health declined to comment, saying it would be 
inappropriate to speak amid contract talks with the exchanges.

Mr Richardson said the exchanges were funded on different contracts but in 
total received $2.2 million a year from the Government.

Many needed a huge income boost. His own exchange wanted a rise to $170,000 
a year, from the $90,000 it now got.

There was a big need for more education money - for better materials to 
teach drug users about safe practices.

The trust is also pressing for a reversal of a provision in the Misuse of 
Drugs Act which makes it illegal for people to possess needles and syringes 
despite obtaining them from exchanges.

Mr Richardson said that under Government regulations, people charged had an 
automatic defence if their source was a registered exchange. But many did 
not realise this and needlessly pleaded guilty.

Even if they were aware, they still had to face a night in police cells and 
going through the court system.

"This is a giant hassle and means they don't bring needles back," he said.

In a survey only 45 per cent of users reported that they returned their 
needles and syringes; 27 per cent burned them, 3 per cent flushed them down 
the toilet and 25 per cent put them in the rubbish.

Exchange workers say this actually means public rubbish bins because users 
do not want to risk being caught with them in their own rubbish.

"More than half our clients have hepatitis C," said one worker.

"If half a million needles a year are going missing, in effect that's a 
quarter of a million that are infected with hepatitis C virus.

"That's a major public health risk - people finding them on the beach and 
in public places.

We've been asking Government to address that for the last five years."
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens