Pubdate: Tues, 02 Feb 1999
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 1999 The New York Times Company


NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- Heroin addicts are, by definition, creatures of
habit, so it seemed odd that the bedraggled young man who ambled up to the
needle exchange in New Brunswick was uncertain about what kind of syringe he
would prefer.

He closely examined several different types of needles. Finally, he selected
one, abruptly announced that he was an undercover agent from the Middlesex
County Prosecutor's Office and arrested an AIDS activist named Diana McCague
for violating New Jersey's ban on possessing or distributing syringes.

"I should have known right away he was a cop," said Ms. McCague, who had
been distributing clean needles to drug addicts since 1994 and has been
arrested twice. "Users are very particular about the kind of works they
use -- they don't need to compare them. He seemed a little too clean to be
real, too."

Ms. McCague's arrest, in the fall of 1998, forced her organization, the Chai
Project (chai is Hebrew for life), the last of New Jersey's organized needle
exchange programs, to stop distributing syringes. Volunteers now set up
their van twice each week outside a soup kitchen in New Brunswick,
distributing condoms, H.I.V.-prevention pamphlets and bleach kits to
sterilize needles, but no syringes.

The needle-less campaign, and the unusually aggressive tactic of using sting
operations to snare advocates for AIDS victims, has made New Jersey the most
active front in the nation's fierce political battle about the merit of
needle exchanges. The state's unrelenting opposition to the programs also
places Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in the uncharacteristic role of

With her centrist views on social issues like abortion, gay rights and gun
control, the Governor has cultivated a national reputation as a leader of
the Republican Party's moderate wing. But mention needle exchanges, and the
fact that New Jersey has the nation's third-highest rate of intravenous
H.I.V. infection, and Governor Whitman can grow heated.

Republican governors in New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania use state
money to pay for the programs, arguing that they save lives and spare
taxpayers the high cost of treating AIDS victims, which can top $20,000 per
patient per year. Mrs. Whitman lauds the county prosecutor who arrested Ms.
McCague for "enforcing the law."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of
Health and the Surgeon General have all released studies concluding that
needle exchanges significantly decrease the spread of H.I.V. without
increasing drug use. Mrs. Whitman dismisses their research as "dubious, at

Her appointed Attorney General, Peter G. Verniero, released a study in 1998
that was critical of needle exchanges. The study cited as one of its sources
an article by the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which also advocated
conversion to Christianity as a cure for drug addiction.

And when Governor Whitman was asked recently to explain the factual basis
for her unflinching belief that needle exchanges send the wrong message to
children, she grew frustrated, as if the hypocrisy of the programs were so
obvious it needed no explanation.

"As a mother, I know that it sets a bad example," she said during an
interview last month. " 'Do as I say, not as I do' is a lousy way to lead,
whether you're running a family or running a state."

With a few notable exceptions, medical experts from the American Medical
Association to the National Academy of Sciences to the United States
Department of Health and Human Services view needle exchanges as a matter of
public health and say that the goal of decreasing H.I.V. infection rates far
outweighs the drawbacks of providing syringes to drug addicts.

But some law enforcement officials, led by Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, the
White House director of drug policy, oppose the programs as a matter of
principle: drugs are illegal, they maintain, and government sends the wrong
message to children by providing addicts with the means to break the law.

President Clinton acknowledges that needle exchanges reduce H.I.V. infection
without fostering drug use. But last year he gave in to pressure from
Republicans in Congress and prohibited the use of Federal money to pay for

In fighting the needle exchanges, Governor Whitman has encountered an
unlikely adversary, David W. Troast, whom she chose in 1996 to head the
state's Advisory Commission on AIDS. As a wealthy businessman and an
acquaintance in Mrs. Whitman's social circle, Troast was hardly someone who
would be expected to side with drug users and radicals.

After taking the job, however, Troast interviewed dozens of experts in
public health, epidemiology and AIDS prevention, and was stunned by the
magnitude and severity of New Jersey's AIDS problem.

New Jersey has 26,000 people with AIDS, and the nation's highest rate of

infection among women and children. The state also has 9,100 orphans whose
mothers have died of AIDS.

Troast said he was also struck by the overwhelming consensus among health
experts that any serious attempt to slow the spread of H.I.V., which now
infects 2,100 additional New Jersey residents each year, must include a
needle exchange program.

Mrs. Whitman rejected the Commission's proposal, and when Troast pushed the
idea again several months later, she rejected it again. As their wrangling
became highly publicized, Troast began to notice a pattern.

"Whenever my council's actions got the attention of the media, the
authorities cracked down on Project Chai, and Diana McCague got locked up,"
Troast said. "I feel personally responsible for her plight."

By in the fall of 1998, Mrs. Whitman wrote a letter telling the Commission
that she would never change her opposition to needle exchanges, and urging
them to move on to more productive matters, like developing strategies to
cut the infection rates among pregnant women and adolescents. Troast said
the Commission did focus on those problems, but arrived at the same
conclusion: that a small needle exchange program could cut the state's
number of new H.I.V. infections by as much as 50 percent.

Mrs. Whitman insists that her position is a deeply held conviction, based on
common sense and firsthand experience with some of the seriously impaired
children born to drug-addicted mothers.

Before her first run for governor in 1993, Mrs. Whitman visited a Newark
hospital that treated children born addicted to cocaine, and held some of
the children who had been born with profound developmental disabilities
because of their mothers' drug use. The experience convinced her that it
would be better for society to discourage drug use.

Convinced that Mrs. Whitman will not reverse her position, Ms. McCague and
other advocates are now concentrating on protests calling for changes in the
state's law after the Governor's term expires in 2001.

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