Source: Washington Post 
Author: Robert E. Pierre, Washington Post Staff Writer


Maryland House members gave their preliminary endorsement yesterday to a
plan to expand to Prince George's County a controversial needle exchange
program intended to slow the spread of AIDS among drug users by allowing
them to swap used hypodermics for new ones.

Numerous federally funded studies have shown that needle exchange programs
nationwide have helped reduce new HIV infections by 20 percent or more by
making it less likely that drug users will reuse contaminated needles. But
critics have charged that the programs -- more than 100 nationwide -- send
the wrong message and amount to a backdoor sanctioning of illegal drug use.

Prince George's would be the first suburban county in the Washington area
to institute such a program. Up to now, needle exchanges have been limited
to the District and Baltimore. From 1986 to 1996, the number of new AIDS
cases diagnosed each year in Prince George's rose from 61 to 296. During
the same period, the percentage of those cases attributed to intravenous
drug use and the sharing of needles doubled to more than 26 percent of the
total cases, officials said.

"This is a bill that will save lives," said Del. Pauline H. Menes (D-Prince
George's), the bill's primary sponsor.

Needle exchange programs remain controversial in city halls and state
legislatures across the country and on Capitol Hill. The Clinton
administration has not allowed local governments to use federal funding for
needle exchange programs, arguing that although research has shown that
those programs can reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS, there is not adequate
research showing that they do not encourage drug use.

"It sends a terrible message to every young person in the state," said Del.
John S. Morgan (R-Prince George's/Howard), who opposes the program. "We
shouldn't be subsidizing heroin addiction. That's what this really is. I
don't want my tax money used for this."

The District first tried its needle exchange program in 1992, and the
program was rejuvenated last year with $200,000 in city funds. Baltimore
has handed out free needles to drug users for four years and experienced a
20 percent decline in new HIV infections while cases in surrounding
counties increased by 1 percent.

Two weeks ago, Maryland senators killed a proposal to permit needle
exchanges to occur throughout the state, not just in Baltimore. But a House
bill expanding the program to Prince George's County alone won preliminary
approval from the House of Delegates yesterday, after all but one of the
county's 21 delegates rallied to support the program, provided it was
coupled with enhanced drug treatment programs.

Should the measure be formally adopted by the House today, the proposal
would go to the state Senate. Because six of the eight Prince George's
senators back the idea, a bill affecting only Prince George's customarily
would win approval from the full Senate. State legislators traditionally
have deferred to the wishes of local lawmakers on legislation that affects
no other county. 

Even with state approval, it still would be up to the County Council and
County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) to decide whether to implement a needle
exchange program and when to do it. Curry has not taken a position on the
matter, but the County Council and Prince George's Health Officer Art
Thatcher already have expressed their support for a needle exchange.

"It makes sense for us to try to prevent the spread of disease and
illness," said Prince George's County Council member Stephen J. Del Giudice
(D-Hyattsville), who supports the measure.

Currently, the county has 375 patients in methadone treatment for drug
abuse problems. Thatcher said that for a needle exchange program to be
effective, the county would have to beef up the number of treatment slots.
State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) said he would gladly approach
the governor about providing some state aid for such a program.

"There is a fair amount of largess in the state budget," said Pinsky, a key

State lawmakers must approve the program because needles are considered
drug paraphernalia under Maryland law, and people caught carrying them are
subject to arrest. In Baltimore, people identified as being registered for
the program are not subject to arrest if they are caught with a needle. But
police said they are not immune to prosecution or arrest if police catch
them with illegal drugs.

"Without this bill, anybody caught with needles would be arrested," Menes

Despite the overwhelming support of state lawmakers in Prince George's,
Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah (D-Prince George's) conceded that the idea may not
sit well with some residents in the affluent African American community.

"This is a very difficult issue to talk about," she said. "Successful
suburban neighborhoods don't have these kinds of problems. . . . But of
course we do. Actually admitting that we have a problem is the first step."

Staff writer Barbara Vobejda contributed to this report. 

 Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company