Source: New York Times 
Pubdate: Sun, 17 Aug 1997

To Philanthropist, Needle Exchange Just Saves Lives


NEW YORK  In a philanthropic gesture certain to elicit outrage as well as
gratitude, financier George Soros is spending $1 million on sterile needles
to be handed out to heroin and cocaine addicts who risk AIDS and other
diseases by sharing needles. 

"Probably of all the money that we spend on various projects," Soros said,
"this is the one that is actually going to save the most lives." 

But it is also likely to fuel attacks from his critics, who have accused
him of subsidizing what they contend is a stealth campaign to make drugs

Soros has spent close to $20 million trying to change how Americans look at
illegal drugs. That is but a fraction of many millions that he has
contributed to bold and obscure causes in support of democratic change from
Eastern Europe to Asia. 

Soros, who was born in Hungary and immigrated to the United States in 1956,
became a lightning rod for criticism after he contributed $1 million to
ballot initiatives in California and Arizona last year that won voter
approval for the medicinal use of marijuana. 

But in an interview last week in his New York office, Soros put his views
about illegal drugs in terms more nuanced than those used by his supporters
or detractors. 

He does not support making drugs legal, he said, but believes that
prohibiting their use is impossible. It is more realistic, he added, to
reduce the harm that drug users cause themselves. 

Though he has experimented with marijuana, Soros said, he expressed
misgivings about making it legal, because marijuana impairs the motivation
and performance of children in school. 

Soros complains that his outspokenness about drugs has been misrepresented.
He has subsidized organizations like the Lindesmith Center and Drug Policy
Foundation, which advocate the repeal or relaxation of the current
prohibitions on psychoactive drugs, because he says he is unhappy with the
larger war on drugs, explaining: 

"I don't have an answer to the drug problem. I think we need to explore
different ways of dealing with it, and I think that which we are doing now
is doing more harm than good." 

Soros has indirectly financed needle exchanges through the Drug Policy
Foundation, based in Washington, which used some of the money as grants to
needle exchanges. 

But this week, Soros is donating $1 million to needle exchanges through the
Tides Foundation in San Francisco, which matches philanthropic donors with
requests for financial support in the field of social change. 

In a matter of weeks, Soros' largesse could make as many as 10 million
clean needles available to drug abusers. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated last year
that intravenous drug users and their sex partners and children accounted
for more than onethird of new infections of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. 

Where hypodermic needles are sold over the counter, they generally cost
slightly more than 20 cents each. Buying the needles wholesale reduces
their cost to about 10 cents, specialists say. It costs an average of
$119,000 to treat someone with AIDS. 

"I think it's a great thing that someone's stepping forth and doing this,"
said Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, based
in Manhattan, which promotes measures to reduce the harm drug users do to
themselves. "It's a challenge to the public health officials that a private
citizen has to do this sort of thing." 

Although $1 million might seem like "a drop in the ocean," Clear said,
"currently we don't even have a pond. The influx of money is really going
to help some small programs." 

Proponents of needle exchanges report that such programs have limited the
spread of AIDS without increasing drug use. In February, the Secretary of
Health and Human Services, Dr. Donna E. Shalala, released a report
confirming that needle exchanges were an effective way to reduce AIDS. 

But Dr. Shalala did not exercise her authority to lift the ban imposed by
Congress in 1992 on federal financing of needle exchanges. She said on Aug.
6 that the issue was still under study. 

Support for needle exchanges has been expressed by groups like the American
Bar Association and the American Medical Association. But some
organizations argue that passing out free needles to drug users encourages
the wrong behavior. 

Robert L. Maginnis of the Family Research Council, which Wednesday will
release a survey of its own criticizing needle exchanges, said: "If Soros
wants to give money, it's his money, but I think he needs to be very
careful about promoting drug use, which is what he's doing." 

Maginnis, the council's senior policy adviser on crime and drugs, added,
"What we need to promote is abstinence on drugs and not facilitation of
deadly habits." 

Soros acknowledged that one motive for donating $1 million for clean
needles was to goad public officials into doing more. "Very few politicians
dare to stand up," he said. "If they touch the issue, it's like touching a
third rail." 

Last year, Soros spent about $1 million  in aftertax dollars, he
emphasized  to finance the marijuana referendums in California and
Arizona because he believed that the benefits to ill people would far
outweigh any risks of increased addiction. 

"I have smoked marijuana, I inhaled," Soros said when asked about it. "I
actually enjoyed it. I found that the enjoyment of it declined very rapidly
by repeated use." 

He explained that he had lost interest in marijuana after having smoked it
a dozen times or so. 

But Soros said he did not want to see marijuana become legal for everyone,
as his critics often assume, because he was extremely concerned about its
effects on young people, who are smoking it in increasing numbers. 

"I think marijuana should be kept away particularly from schoolchildren,
from anybody who is learning something," he said, "because if your
shortterm memory is impaired, then you're not learning. And if you're not
learning, then you lose your motivation for learning." 

Marijuana, Soros said, "is genuinely very harmful for schoolchildren, and
this should be recognized. 

"If that requires that marijuana generally be outlawed, I'm not opposed to
that," Soros said. But penalties for adults for possession of marijuana, he
said, should be reduced to a modest fine. 

Soros said he had given about $5 million a year for the last three or four
years to foster a public dialogue about drugs because, in his view, a real
debate about drug policy has been suppressed in an otherwise open democracy. 

"There is a kind of bigotry that says unless you endorse the war on drugs,
you are a legalizer and an enemy of society," Soros said. It is important,
he said, to break down that notion. 

"I'm in a rather privileged position," he said, "due to my financial
success, to deal with a problem that other people cannot touch. In my
social and business contacts, I get a lot more support than I do criticism." 

Copyright 1997 The New York Times