Source: Bergen Record (NJ)
FAX:  (201) 646-4749
Pubdate: Thu, 01 Oct 1998
Author: Carol Ann Campbell, Staff Writer


The only AIDS organization openly distributing clean needles to drug users
in New Jersey has decided to stop the practice after its director, Diana
McCague, was arrested Tuesday for the second time.

McCague, who flouted New Jersey's drug paraphernalia laws, said her
organization will fight in the courts instead of continuing to hand out
syringes, a practice the organization believes will slow the spread of HIV,
the virus that causes AIDS.

Investigators from the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office arrested
McCague and a colleague, Derick Moore of Clifton, after McCague handed a
packet of syringes to an undercover officer Tuesday night. McCague founded
the Chai Project in 1994. Last year the organization, which operates out of
a van, gave out 48,000 needles to 450 drug users.

"More people in Middlesex County will be infected with AIDS as a result of
this arrest," McCague said. "The government is completely uncompassionate
and is happy to just let people get sick and die. More women and babies
will be at risk because of this."

McCague has been much admired by AIDS activists who believe needle exchange
programs are needed in New Jersey, where the sharing of unclean needles is
the single leading cause of HIV. Unclean needles especially contribute to
the spread of HIV among women and children.

But supporters of needle exchanges faced the formidable opposition of
Governor Whitman, who has long said such programs send out the wrong
message to children, and appear to condone drug use. Whitman has asked her
own Advisory Council on AIDS, which came out in support of needle
exchanges, to drop the issue.

McCague has been open about her organization's continued distribution of
syringes even after her first arrest in 1996. McCague has so far been
unsuccessful in her court appeals to overturn that earlier conviction. She
is now appealing to the New Jersey Supreme Court. There's been no decision
about whether the high court will hear the case.

Middlesex County Assistant Prosecutor Ron Kercado said his office received
no directive from Whitman or Attorney General Peter Verneiro to make an
arrest in this case.

"It was a matter strictly done by Middlesex County prosecutors," Kercado
said. "We have made it a point publicly in the past that if needles are
being distributed it is a violation of the law, and we will take action."

He said he could not comment on the charge that the incidence of AIDS will
now rise in Middlesex County.

"We have said all along that this is not a matter for the prosecutor, but
for the Legislature, to determine," Kercado said. "The courts have said you
cannot distribute needles, no matter how good your intentions."

McCague could face a six-month jail term if convicted, plus a $1,000 fine
and the loss of her driver's license. She has already forfeited her
license, however, because of her first arrest, and that has cost her a job
as a taxi driver. Supporters have donated money to help her pay her bills,
and her attorney, Alan Silber of Weehawken, is defending her for free.

The Senate Health Committee recently approved a bill that would allow for a
three-year, private needle-exchange program, and another bill to allow the
sale of syringes without a prescription. Both bills are awaiting a vote by
the full Senate.

Axel Torres Marrero, director of public policy for the Hyacinth AIDS
Foundation, called the arrest of the Chai workers "unfortunate. . . . In
the face of this epidemic our laws are not responding. Diana believes in
her cause and is trying to save lives."

McCague said the organization will still hand out information about drug
treatment to addicts, as well as condoms and bleach to clean syringes,
which, McCague said, is "better than nothing."

Copyright 1998 Bergen Record Corp. 
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Checked-by: Richard Lake