Source:   Denver Post
Contact:    Wednesday, August 6, 1997
Page 10B

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