Source: London Free Press Contact: December 13, 1997 Author: Morris Dalla Costa Author email: NEEDLE EXCHANGE SAVES LIVES By Morris Dalla Costa London Free Press She doesn't make any apologies for being a drug addict. Her goal, as with most other addicts, is to get off the morphine, crystal meth or whatever drugs she injects into her body. Her apartment is a meeting place for others like her. When they do meet, she uses the opportunity to collect used needles and hand out fresh ones. "There's a very underground drug scene here," says Beth, "a lot bigger than people imagine. It's very secret, very buried." Toronto? Montreal? Windsor? How about London, Ont.? Beth, 20, came to London from Kingston a year and a half ago "to get off drugs." "When I came here I thought it would be easier but it hasn't been," she said. "I actually quit for six months but then I got back on it. I usually go on binges for two weeks. Right now I'm just trying to stable out my life. I would like to reduce the use, but right now that's not where it's at." Beth is an intravenous drug user. She knows the dangers, she knows how hard it is to quit. In her own way though, she's decided to do what she can to help keep addicts as safe as possible. She's one of several users who act as agents to make sure others use clean needles and know how to inject drugs properly. LITTLEKNOWN PROGRAM It's all part of a littleknown yet highly successful and important service provided by the MiddlesexLondon Health Unit and the AIDS Committee of London. The Counterpoint Needles Exchange program is helping keep addicts safe from a variety of diseases caused by using dirty needles, including AIDS. The arguments against the program are predictable. It isn't a program that provides the warm and fuzzies. Critics claim it encourages illegal drug use. One does what one has to do to make things better. No, this isn't a pretty Christmas story about a happy family, sitting by the tree, opening presents. On Christmas Day, hundreds of addicts in London, some of them on the street, some in flop houses, some in highclass neighborhoods, will be shooting up. "The reality is no one is going to get off drugs until they are ready," said Beth. "They'll do whatever they can to get a rig. "I've seen people do a lot of stupid things, including sharing needles and using dirty needles. I've seen a lot of friends get sick with hepatitis and die with AIDS. That doesn't need to happen." The program is administered by the health unit and AIDS committee, but needle exchange services are also available at the Youth Action Centre and STD Clinic. Condoms are also distributed. People like Beth are important to the program because users are frightened they'll be recognized by going to pick up clean paraphernalia. She acts as a street connection. There's no questioning the program's success. In 199596, 5,164 needles were distributed with 6,267 needles returned. In 199697, 29,471 needles were distributed with 28,440 returned. There were 773 contacts made. Every clean needle used means one less chance an addict will get sick, one less chance of losing a life. Every needle returned means one less needle left on the ground. Every contact means one more opportunity to let the user know programs are available when they are ready to quit. "People don't understand because they haven't been there," said Beth. "People think because you stick a needle in your arm, you are trash, you don't deserve to live. "We're not trash." Thank goodness there's a program that understands.