Pubdate: Thu, 20 Mar 2003
Source: Providence Journal, The (RI)
Copyright: 2003 The Providence Journal Company
Author: David McFadden


WOONSOCKET -- The City Council unanimously agreed to back a bill pending in 
the General Assembly that would prohibit the location of any hypodermic 
needle-exchange van or center within 300 yards of parks, playgrounds, 
schools and churches.

The bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Health, Education 
and Welfare. It was introduced by Rep. Todd R. Brien of Woonsocket in 
January after local lawmakers learned of a state Health Department-financed 
needle-exchange van distributing clean needles, syringes, condoms and 
literature to intravenous drug users in a parking lot next to World War II 
Veterans Memorial Park.

Council members described the needle-exchange program, in which drug users 
trade their used needles for clean ones, as a public-safety menace and one 
that would likely send a confusing "double message" about drug use to children.

"I'm having a big problem with this," said Councilwoman Suzanne J. 
Vadenais, a licensed practical nurse at St. Antoine Residence in North 
Smithfield. "What kind of message are we sending to our kids that says if 
you do [drugs] we have a van out there that'll give you free needles?"

"It's a difficult message to get across to children," agreed Council 
President Leo T. Fontaine Monday night, who said he was opposed to the 
needle-exchange concept. He also objected to the practice from a 
public-safety standpoint, arguing that, besides posing a threat to 
children, city police officers could be put in harm's way by the program's 
actions. Patrolmen would run the risk of contracting blood-borne diseases 
when patting down criminal suspects pocketing needles.

Councilman Brian R. Blais said that he was not philosophically opposed to 
the goal of needle exchange, which is to prevent the spread of disease. 
But, he said, operating the distribution van next to a public park is not 
appropriate, and indeed, is "somewhat offensive."

Mayor Susan D. Menard said, when the controversy about the distribution van 
first came to light, that offering the needle-exchange program at a health 
clinic or a hospital would be a far more appropriate setting than next to a 
municipal park, a location she deemed not only "absurd," but "dangerous."

Public health advocates argue that needle exchange is a highly effective 
way to offer outreach and encourage intravenous drug users to seek 
treatment, and that parks offer some amount of confidentiality to addicts 
difficult to reach.

They also argue that it is a proven way to protect both addicts and the 
wider community from the spread of infectious diseases, such as HIV and 
hepatitis C.

Starting last autumn, workers from ENCORE (Education, Needle Exchange, 
Counseling, Outreach and Referral) provided clean needles, condoms, and 
literature to addicts next to the Woonsocket park for two hours each 
Wednesday. The program was suspended in January. The harm-reduction program 
is run by the Health Department's AIDS Care Ocean State agency, which has 
operated a needle-exchange program in Providence for years. It also 
recently started one in Newport.
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