Pubdate: Fri, 20 Mar 1998
Source: Rocky Mountain News (CO)


THE ISSUE: Legislature won't approve needle exchanges

OUR VIEW: Advocates should continue abiding by the law

Advocates of needle-exchange programs seem to believe that they are the
exclusive possessors of the moral high ground. After a House committee last
week voted against changing state law that now forbids possessing drug
paraphernalia, Paul Simons of the HIV-prevention group PEERS (People
Engaged in Education and Reduction Strategies) called for a campaign of
civil disobedience.

"One way or another, we will have a needle-exchange program by the end of
the year," Simons said. "If we can't do it through quiet, rational
dialogue, then we will do it through civil disobedience."

He has every right to try, but civil disobedience as a tool of moral
suasion succeeds only when it can persuade large numbers of people that the
law being protested is unjust. It seldom works when support for the law
grows from equally strong moral principles: in this case, that it is wrong
to facilitate drug use.

Simons and others seem to assume the people who disagree with them are
merely pretending to moral principle, but if so, they are making a serious

In any case, no one is seriously arguing that there is a fundamental right
to provide drug users with hypodermic syringes. In truth, their argument is
an argument from expediency. Drug use will occur whether we wish it or not,
the argument goes, so society should aim merely to minimize the ill effects.

Many people simply do not find this persuasive, knowing as they do that
reducing the negative consequences of bad behavior tends to encourage it.

Even the arguments for expediencey are weaker than needle-exchange
advocates acknowledge. Many such programs, though not all, seem to be
successful at reducing disease, but the effect on levels of addiction are
unclear at best. That's because it's relatively easy to identify users of
intravenous drugs, their partners and their children who are infected with
HIV or other diseases through contaminated needles. But there's no way to
identify the non-addicts who never begin to inject drugs because they're
afraid of disease. Whether needle-exchange programs increase the number of
addicts or not, the effect is almost impossible to measure against the
broader patterns of social change that affect drug use.

The arguments were sufficient, however, to persuade the Denver City Council
in December to approve a needle-exchange program with the important proviso
that state law be changed to make it legal before the program could begin.
Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter was among those who testified in favor
of last week's bill, but he and Mayor Wellington Webb have declined to
accept Simon's invitation to join him in civil disobedience.

"The way I view my obligation as prosecutor, I have to enforce the law,"
Ritter said. "I can't select only the ones that I like."

And Webb spokesman Andrew Hudson said the mayor wouldn't back an illegal
operation without Ritter's approval, though his comments suggest the mayor
was leaving himself waffling room.

"If the district attorney were to take another position, we would consider
our options," Hudson said.

We encourage both of them to stand by the laws unless or until the laws are
changes -- and leave the civil disobedience to others.
For more information, call or write:

People Engaged in Education and Reduction Strategies (PEERS) 2701
Alcott St. #263 Denver, CO 80211