Source: Standard-Times (MA) Contact: http://www.s-t.com/ Pubdate: Sun, 10 May 1998 FRUSTRATED HEALTH OFFICIALS FORCE NEEDLE EXCHANGE ISSUE Anyone who believes that the argument about needle exchange ends with a city council vote or a referendum should think again: Public health officials in Massachusetts, most of whom are diametrically opposed to popular opinion about needle exchange, are picking a fight. All eyes are now on Springfield, where the Public Health Council has declared a public health emergency and ordered the city to start a state-funded needle exchange program for drug addicts to stop the spread of AIDS. Springfield City Council President William Boyle immediately challenged the move, because that body voted down needle exchange in 1996 and buried a new proposal just last year. But the health council's decision squares perfectly with the opinion of Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, the president's Council on AIDS, and almost any public health official who knows the subject. Of course, it flies directly in the face of federal drug enforcement czar Barry McCaffrey and others who see this as an issue of crime and/or morality. They do not countenance any official policy that suggests that the drug laws are flawed or can be circumvented, and won't stand for any signal to drug users that their condition is anything but self-inflicted and entirely up to them to do something about. Public health officials don't spend a lot of time running for office, and so they don't accurately reflect popular opinion about a lot of things. They're simply concerned with public health and such things as epidemics, without passing judgment on those who are ill or who are at risk. AIDS and HIV infection happen to be less than appealing topics to most voters, and when we bring intravenous drug users into the picture that's the end of it. For people who exhibit such behavior there is no sympathy, not even a real commitment to the rhetoric about finding enough effective treatment for all those who want to kick their habit. That has been true in New Bedford, in Springfield and elsewhere, although about 80 cities in the United States now use needle exchange as a means of preventing AIDS, most of them successfully. In those places, health officials' views prevailed over other fears. Where needle exchange isn't allowed, we can expect, now that its effectiveness has been certified by the federal government, that health officials will try to flex their muscle. If they win in Springfield, watch for frustrated health officials in many other communities to follow their lead. - --- Checked-by: "Rolf Ernst"