Pubdate: Wed, 10 Sep 2003
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2003 Los Angeles Times
Author: Steve Hymon, Times Staff Writer
Cited: the Human Rights Watch report
California Narcotic Officers' Association
Clean Needles Now
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


Activists Say the State's Anti-AIDS Programs Are Being Hindered. a Law
Enforcement Spokesman Suggests That They Are Lying.

A human rights advocacy group Tuesday accused police in California of
routinely interfering with legitimate needle-exchange programs
intended to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, alleged in a report that
police intent on enforcing drug laws often arrest or hassle patrons of
locally approved needle-exchange programs throughout the state. The
group said that police, in effect, are discouraging people from using
a public health program that could save their lives.

Public health officials have long focused on contaminated needles in
the fight against blood-borne diseases such as AIDS.

About 28% of new AIDS cases in the United States in 2002 can be traced
to dirty needles, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention.

"In some countries, sterile syringe programs are viewed as an integral
and important part of a country's HIV strategy, whereas here [drug
users] have to risk arrest and struggle very hard to assert
themselves" to get clean needles, said Jonathan Cohen, an HIV/AIDS
researcher with Human Rights Watch.

California law presents a dilemma: Needle-exchange programs were made
legal several years ago, but possessing drug paraphernalia such as
syringes is still illegal. It is illegal to buy syringes at a pharmacy
without a prescription.

Cohen said his group interviewed 67 Californians who use
needle-exchange programs.

But the report received a harsh response from John Lovell, a
Sacramento lobbyist who represents the California Narcotics Officers
Assn., the California Police Chiefs Assn. and the California Peace
Officers Assn.

"I've never heard that [allegation] before from anyone, not from
public health activists in California or the ACLU," Lovell said. "I
think they're lying."

Lovell said that the police groups he represents support
needle-exchange programs and that it is inevitable that some drug
addicts who use exchanges will run afoul of the law for other reasons
- - disorderly conduct, for example.

Shoshanna Scholar, the program director of Clean Needles Now in
Hollywood, said the organization has a good working relationship with
the Los Angeles Police Department.

She added, however, that some people who use the program, which
distributes 70,000 needles each month, have complained that LAPD
officers sometimes take needles or rip up their needle-exchange
identification cards.

Jerry Davila, the assistant AIDS coordinator for the city of Los
Angeles, agreed.

"We have received some complaints that there have been some isolated
cases of police harassment but I don't think it's a major problem right now."

The debate over needle-exchange programs often focuses on whether such
programs promote drug use. Some health officials, particularly in
European nations, have said that it doesn't matter because AIDS
constitutes a far greater health crisis than drug use and that
everything possible must be done to stop it.

Health advocates also argue that the cost of a clean syringe --
typically 10 cents -- is far less than the thousands of dollars spent
on providing care for someone with AIDS.

A bill being debated in the Legislature, SB 774, would allow
pharmacies to sell a limited amount of needles without a prescription.
A similar bill was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis last fall, and he has yet
to say whether he will support the new bill. 
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