Source:   Denver Post
Contact:    Wed, 6 Aug 1997

The Denver Post
Page 10B
from: Letters, Faxes & EMail

Needle exchange doesn't lead to lawsuits

As a law professor who has done extensive research on the legal issues
surrounding needle exchange, I have followed the debate in Denver with
interest. I was particularly struck by Councilman Ed Thomas' worry that the
city might be held liable for civil rights violations if a drug user should
overdose using a needle from the exchange.

Needle exchange saves lives, but it is not a cure for drug abuse. Of all the
arguments against it, though, Thomas' is the weakest. No such case has
surfaced in the almost 10 years that legal needle exchange has been offered
in the U.S. A plaintiff must show that the city's mere approval of needle
exchange was a significant cause of the harm suffered. When someone using
drugs harms himself, courts generally have ruled that his choice to use the
dangerous substance was the sole cause of harm. Similarly, civil rights
liability does not arise from private action. Merely approving or supporting
a needle exchange wouldn't be enough. Even if it were, I doubt a court will
find providing a needle for public health purposes violates any
constitutional right.

Could someone sue the city and win? Sure. But it's about as likely as
Councilman Thomas being hit by a falling meteor on one of his bike rides.
Meanwhile, we know with 100 percent certainty that a needle exchange in
Denver will save the lives of hundreds of drug users over the next decade.
That shouldn't be a tough call.

Your mayor's support of exchange is courageous, but it's also prudent. Years
ago, Philadelphia's Ed Rendell did the same thing, issuing an emergency
public health order and providing public funds to a local needle exchange.
The results have been saved lives, not lawsuits.

Temple Law School