Source: Standard-Times (MA) Contact: http://www.s-t.com/ Pubdate: Thu, 23 Apr 1998 Author: Standard-Times - OPINION PROHIBITIONISTS STILL PREVAIL AS NEEDLE EXCHANGE IS PROVEN The "war on drugs" would be over tomorrow if it were subjected to the same sort of scrutiny that needle exchange has endured. Most of those who demand that needle exchange prove its worth before the federal government spends a nickel on it have no problem pouring billions of dollars into an anti-drug campaign that was shown long ago to be as ineffectual as the prohibition of alcohol. No matter, for today the war on drugs forces have prevailed -- prevailed not because of the evidence available, but because of political and ideological pressure on a "didn't inhale" president averse to any criticism on the drug front. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala this week endorsed needle exchanges and encouraged more communities to create them. The evidence is clear and abundant, she announced at long last, that needle exchange programs, in which clean needles are distributed in exchange for used ones, slow the spread of the HIV virus that causes AIDS without encouraging increased drug use. But because of opposition from Barry McCaffrey, the administration's drug policy chief, the Clinton administration also declared that it wouldn't provide a penny for needle exchanges. So while the central argument against needle exchange has been dismantled, satisfying a congressional requirement before funding can be allowed, neither the Clinton administration nor needle exchange advocates on the local level in New Bedford have yet overcome the visceral political aversion toward doing anything whatsoever for drug addicts. That is so even when drug addicts' AIDS rates are decimating the population and costing all of us a fortune in medical expenses and human tragedy. AIDS advocates and health officials across America find this galling, especially when needle exchange opponents routinely disregard promises to improve treatment for drug addicts as an alternative to needle exchange. It remains true that many people still prefer to see AIDS and drug abuse as crime issues rather than health issues -- even though health concerns are the reason for the drug laws in the first place. And it remains true that most people are willing to pay -- and to let others pay -- an extraordinary price for this intransigence.