Source: Rocky Mountain News Contact: Oct. 24, 1997 Section: 35A Author: Michael O'Keeffe, Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer Needleexchange pioneer backs Denver program Conference focuses on problem of drugs, HIV The grandfather of needleexchange programs grins as he describes how his summer project turned into a nationwide crusade. "There's no question when we all wind up in the old folks needleexchange home, I'll have some great lies to tell," said Dave Purchase, in Denver Thursday and today for the Drugs and HIV in the Rocky Mountain States conference at the Adam's Mark Hotel. "But there's too much to do now. There's too much ignorance to fight." Scores of public health officials, AIDS activists and drug users have converged in Denver to share information about "harm reduction," a philosophy that says drug use won't go away, so let's minimize its impact. One way to do that is by allowing drug users to exchange dirty needles for clean ones, participants said. Earlier this month, Mayor Wellington Webb unveiled a plan to allow drug addicts to do just that. The City Council is considering the idea. Health officials and AIDS activists say needle exchanges cut the spread of AIDS, hepatitis and other bloodborne diseases transmitted by sharing dirty needles. Harmreduction proponents also believe addicts should have a say in the process. That means putting aside deeply held stereotypes, said Dr. Stephen Koester of the University of Colorado's Health and Behavorial Science Program. "Once you get to know drug users, you realize they are no different from the rest of the population," Koester said. "Some are extremely irresponsible. Some are very responsible. Some are moral, others are immoral. Many hold jobs and many have families that are intact." Critics say such programs encourage drugs use. "Are we enablers? The answer is yes," Purchase said. "We enable users to stay alive." Purchase was recovering from a motorcycle accident in 1988 when he set up a TV tray on a Tacoma, Wash., sidewalk and gave junkies clean syringes in exchange for dirty ones, the first needle exchange in the United States. "I was on the sidelines, so I looked around for what needed to be done," said Purchase, a former drug counselor. "I figured by September I'd be looking for a job again." Instead he got a crusade. By 1996, 87 needleexchange programs had been established in 71 cities in 28 states. Boulder County established a needleexchange program in 1989. "It amazes me that you in Colorado had one of the first programs in the country, in the spring of 1989," Purchase said, "but your biggest urban center didn't start talking about it until the fall of 1997. What happened?"