Pubdate: Wed, 01 Sep 1999
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 1999 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.


A bill sought by the city of Los Angeles to allow local governments to
hand out clean hypodermic needles to illegal drug users in a bid to
combat AIDS has reached Gov. Gray Davis' desk. If he takes seriously
California's obligation to counter drug abuse, the governor will veto
this ill-considered legislation.

Introduced by Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni, D-San Rafael, the measure
would repeal a state law that generally prohibits the possession of
hypodermic needles without a doctor's prescription. Instead, the bill
would encourage cities and counties to provide free needles to
injection drug users, on the premise that the distribution of clean
paraphernalia would slow the spread of AIDS.

Considering the billions of dollars spent by all levels of government
to discourage illicit drug use, this bill is a monument to hypocrisy.
It essentially declares that, in glaring contravention of its own war
on drugs, the government will abet narcotics consumption of the most
dangerous kind. It sends the disastrous message to young people that
shooting up heroin or cocaine or any other drug is OK, just so long as
it is done with a clean, government-issued needle.

Proponents, including many public health professionals, cite a growing
body of studies conducted by the National Academy of Sciences and
others concluding that needle exchanges deter the spread of infectious
diseases without encouraging higher levels of illegal drug use. That
may be true, but it misses the larger point, which is that government
has a responsibility that extends well beyond a single category of
drug abusers. It encompasses the entire corroding culture of substance
abuse in America. Needle exchanges undermine the paramount goal of
eradicating substance abuse in all its manifestations.

That is why Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the federal government's anti-drug
czar, campaigns vigorously against needle exchanges. He and other
critics point to the experience in Vancouver, British Columbia, which
has the largest and oldest exchange program in North America,
dispensing 2.5 million needles a year. Vancouver also has become the
heroin capital of the continent, with the highest death rate from
overdoses. In 1988, when the needle exchange was initiated, 18 people
in Vancouver died of overdoses. Last year, the number topped 600.
Moreover, the highest rates of property crime in Vancouver are within
two blocks of the needle exchange program.

Significantly, 40 percent of intravenous drug users who participated
in the Vancouver program reported using dirty needles anyway during
the previous six months. This helps explain why the percentage of
Vancouver participants who were HIV positive skyrocketed from 2
percent in 1988 to 30 percent a decade later.

The sensible way for government to counter narcotics abuse and AIDS
simultaneously is through treatment on demand, coupled with aggressive
education and community outreach programs targeted on intravenous drug
users. This certainly is not the cheapest way to address the problem,
but it is the only way to avert the enormous pitfalls of Mazzoni's

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