Source: Minneapolis Star-Tribune Contact: Website: http://www.startribune.com/ Pubdate: 29 Mar 1998 Author: New York Times CLINTON ADVISERS DIVIDED ON NEEDLE EXCHANGES WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The debate over the propriety of handing out sterile syringes to people who inject illegal drugs, to reduce the spread of AIDS, has reached the White House, where President Clinton's two main policy advisers on the issue have staked out opposing positions. Their disagreement makes prospects for government financing of needle-exchange programs more unlikely when a ban on such spending, imposed by Congress in 1992, expires at the end of March. One adviser, Sandra Thurman, the White House director of national AIDS policy, advocates spending on the programs as a way of saving lives by reducing the incidence of AIDS contracted from shared needles. But at a spirited meeting earlier this month, the other adviser, Barry McCaffrey, the retired Army general who is the administration's director of national drug policy, ferociously opposed any government subsidy. In a subsequent letter to Thurman, he reiterated his belief that buying clean needles for drug users would send the wrong message to young Americans who are being told that illegal drug use is wrong. The money, he said, would be better used expanding drug treatment programs. "As public servants, citizens and parents we owe our children an unambiguous 'no use' message," McCaffrey wrote. "And if they should become ensnared by drugs, we must offer them a way out, not a means to continue addictive behavior." His letter was leaked to some members of Congress. A copy was provided to the New York Times by someone opposed to needle exchanges. Up to Shalala McCaffrey's fervent opposition to paying for needle exchanges, and the esteem with which he is regarded on Capitol Hill, will probably undercut whatever support exists for exchange programs. Many members of Congress already oppose the concept or do not want to look as if they are soft on drug use in a congressional election year. In a joint statement released last weekend, Thurman and McCaffrey sought to play down their increasingly public differences over needle exchange. They said they agreed on other issues, including the need to make drug treatment programs more widely available. They said they would leave it to Donna Shalala, the secretary of health and human services, to settle the needle-exchange issue. Shalala, who has sided with McCaffrey on other drug policy questions, has yet to decide whether the needle-exchange programs deserve government money. Congress asked her to determine whether the programs prevent the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and do not encourage the use of illegal drugs. In February 1997, a report released by the National Institutes of Health said that "there is no longer any doubt that these programs work" to prevent the spread of HIV and said that "needle-exchange programs should be implemented at once." Shalala said that she wanted to study the matter. In his letter to Thurman, McCaffrey pointed out that the government does not ban needle exchanges and that approximately 100 communities have set up programs. The public health consequences of sharing dirty needles is not insignificant. Approximately 280,000 to 300,000 Americans suffer from AIDS and as many as 600,000 others are infected with HIV, according to Thurman's office. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one-third to one-half of new HIV cases involve people who injected drugs or had sex with people who did. The cost of caring for an adult with AIDS can exceed $100,000. "You have to understand that every day, 33 Americans become infected as a result of drugs," Thurman said in an interview. While not all cases of HIV transmission can be prevented, she said, "I think we have a moral obligation to stop as many as we can." Endorsements Public tolerance for needle programs has increased. A Harris poll reported in October that 71 percent of the Americans surveyed supported needle exchanges. The poll was commissioned by the Lindesmith Center, a group that advocates needle-exchange programs. Other groups that have endorsed the programs, in principle, include the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In August, George Soros, the international financier and philanthropist, donated $1 million to finance needle-exchange programs in the San Francisco area. Both supporters and critics of the programs have cited studies to support their arguments. Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city health commissioner in Baltimore, reported to a House subcommittee in September that his city's needle-exchange program had reduced significantly the sharing of used needles and provided a point of access to medical treatment for hard-core addicts. Thurman agreed that needle-exchange programs have become conduits to health care. "This is an opportunity often for people to pull their lives together," she said. "If using a needle-exchange program facilitates it in some way, we need to look at it very seriously." But critics have cited another study that reports that intravenous drug users who joined Montreal's needle-exchange program became infected with HIV at a higher rate than nonparticipants. The study was published last year in the American Journal of Epidemiology. If the ban on government money is lifted, McCaffrey wrote, "There is the troubling question of how such a message would be received by our young people." Thurman replied: "I know he has concerns about that and I do too, but the overwhelming evidence is that people coming into needle-exchange programs are older." "Nobody's going to stick a needle in their arm because someone hands them a needle," she said. © Copyright 1998 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.