HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html His Needle Plan Has Touched a Nerve
Pubdate: Mon, 28 Jan 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Section: A
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Author: Miguel Bustillo, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Cited: District Attorney Susan Reed
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)
Bookmark: (Harm Reduction)


A Texas Lay Chaplain Faces Jail Time for Handing Out Clean Syringes 
to Drug Addicts to Curtail the Spread of HIV.

SAN ANTONIO -- Bill Day doesn't fancy himself an outlaw -- and with 
his Mr. Rogers demeanor, he definitely doesn't look the part. But 
soon the 73-year-old lay chaplain could spend up to a year in jail 
for breaking a law that he considers immoral.

Day hands out clean needles to drug addicts on some of the seediest 
streets in this south Texas city. He does it because he's convinced 
that it reduces human suffering by curtailing the spread of HIV, a 
view that has been supported by medical research for more than a decade.

However, Day's actions are illegal in Texas -- the only state that 
has not started a needle-exchange program of some kind. So when a San 
Antonio police officer spotted him swapping syringes with prostitutes 
and junkies this month, he was arrested on drug paraphernalia charges.

"This is a moral imperative," said Day, whose nonprofit group, the 
Bexar Area Harm Reduction Coalition, gets funding from his church. "I 
come from a family of altruistic people. My mother made clothes for 
the poor during the Depression. My father never turned down a hobo. I 
have to keep doing what I think is right."

Day also has a personal reason for wanting to stop others from 
contracting AIDS: He has the disease. Sick and weary a decade ago, he 
called an ambulance, thinking he was suffering from pneumonia. At the 
hospital, he was informed that he had full-blown AIDS -- and about 
two weeks to live. He fiercely fought on and overcame the odds, but 
not before his once-athletic frame had shrunk to 120 pounds.

"I don't want anyone else to go through that," Day said as he stood 
on San Antonio's west side next to a vacant lot strewn with used 
needles. He said his AIDS, which he did not contract through drug 
use, has been stabilized for six years.

Needle-exchange programs have long been controversial. Critics have 
claimed that they encourage drug use and send a defeatist message 
about the government's war on drugs.

But acceptance of the programs has grown far beyond New York and San 
Francisco over the last decade, due largely to concerns about the 
spread of AIDS and hepatitis C. The Centers for Disease Control and 
Prevention has estimated that more than a third of all AIDS cases in 
the U.S. stem from intravenous drug use.

Though some studies have questioned their effectiveness, most 
research has concluded that needle-exchange programs reduce 
transmission of diseases and save taxpayers money. A 2002 UC Davis 
study found that drug users with access to clean needles were up to 
six times less likely to risk contracting HIV than those without such access.

"There is conclusive scientific evidence that syringe-exchange 
programs, as part of a comprehensive HIV prevention strategy, are an 
effective public health intervention that reduces transmission of HIV 
and does not encourage the illegal use of drugs," U.S. Surgeon 
General David Satcher found in 1998.

Texas politicians, however, continue to regard the research with skepticism.

Neel Lane, a high-powered San Antonio lawyer who agreed to defend Day 
for free after learning about his case through their church, St. 
Mark's Episcopal, said it was time for the Lone Star State to admit 
it was behind the times.

"When you're the only state that doesn't have [a needle-exchange 
program], you're either the 2% smartest or 2% dumbest in the 
country," Lane said.

Though Texas is the only state that has not begun at least a pilot 
needle-exchange program in any city, lawmakers last year authorized 
one -- for San Antonio.

Bexar County public health officials are studying whether to launch 
it, but Dist. Atty. Susan Reed has warned that she could prosecute 
anyone who distributes needles because she considers the act illegal.

"I'm telling [local officials], and I'm telling the police chief, I 
don't think they have any kind of criminal immunity," Reed said in 
August, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Reed has not explained why she opposes the program, and her office 
did not return requests for comment. But at the request of a state 
lawmaker, Texas' attorney general is reviewing the dispute.

Day and two associates, cited with him on Jan. 5, initially faced 
Class C misdemeanors, which are punishable by a fine of up to $500. 
But Reed's office and police plan to increase the charges to 
distributing drug paraphernalia, a Class A misdemeanor, which carries 
a possible one-year jail sentence.

Day said he told San Antonio Police Chief William P. McManus before 
the arrest that he was distributing needles to drug addicts for 
health reasons and was never warned that he could be arrested. Police 
spokeswoman Sandy Gutierrez acknowledged the meeting but said, "We 
did not tell them this was OK."

Day's supporters say they are outraged that police and prosecutors 
are treating the activists as criminals.

"How silly to arrest senior citizens who are trying to stop the 
spread of HIV in their community," said Jill Rips, deputy executive 
director of the San Antonio AIDS Foundation, which provides HIV 
testing and runs a hospice. "Don't police have something better to do?"

Day said he accepted the arrest as part of a process that his 
community must go through before it could begin a healthy debate 
about reducing the spread of AIDS by addicts.

"This has happened everywhere," Day said. "Every needle-exchange 
program has started underground. The knee-jerk reaction was the same: 
'You're encouraging people to do drugs.' Then there was a slow 
metamorphosis, and acceptance."

For someone who claims he's not an outlaw, Day was sounding like a 

"Well, looks can be deceiving sometimes," he said, with a smile.

Then he got into his white minivan and drove away. 
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