Officials Considering Needle Exchange

Officials Considering Needle Exchange
Posted by FoM on February 09, 2000 at 07:32:37 PT
By Paul Schwartzman, Washington Post Staff Writer
Source: Washington Post
When Prince George's is compared with Baltimore and other large cities, the number of people suffering from AIDS- and HIV-related illnesses is relatively low.But the county's caseload is still high enough that County Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) last week proposed that Prince George's create a needle exchange program that would allow drug addicts to trade dirty needles and syringes for clean ones. 
The proposal, which has provoked sharp disagreement among council members, has forced the council onto murky political ground, particularly in a county with a vibrant religious community. Health experts endorse needle exchange programs as a way to reduce the spread of AIDS; critics argue that such initiatives encourage drug use.As a reflection of the council's wariness, Chairman Dorothy F. Bailey (D-Temple Hills) last week took the unusual step of asking lawmakers to delay for three weeks a health committee review of the bill so that she can have three public forums on the issue."I want to take it to the community and talk about it," said Bailey, who is leaning toward supporting the bill. "I want to hear from the faith community because they're opposed to it. They may hear it as a promotion of drug use."Hendershot's proposal would allow intravenous drug users a one-for-one exchange of dirty needles and syringes for sterile ones. The program would be administered by the county's Board of Health and would cost $300,000 to $400,000 annually, he said.Hendershot's bill has drawn enthusiastic support from at least one council member, Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood). Others and County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) have said they want more information before they commit their support. "I'm open to it," Curry said. "There is probably a public health argument to be made, and I'm pragmatic about our needs."Two council members, Isaac J. Gourdine (D-Fort Washington) and Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville), are staunchly opposed. "The mere fact that you provide people with needles to use drugs, I think in itself is wrong," Gourdine said. "Knowing the damage that drugs do to communities and to individuals, it could give the impression that government is condoning the use of drugs, and I would not want that to be interpreted that way by young people."Maloney said he fears that the program will draw drug addicts to Prince George's from outside the area. "It will bring a lot of addicts into the county," Maloney said. That's a contention health experts deny. He also said that asking health officials to distribute needles for drug use is tantamount to encouraging illegal activity. "It's aiding and abetting," he said.The issue first surfaced last fall after Curry asked the council to assess the need for a needle exchange program in Prince George's. In 1998, the Maryland General Assembly authorized the county to begin one as a way to stem a rise in HIV cases.As part of the council's review, the members heard a presentation on needle exchange programs from the county's health officer, Arthur Thacher, as well as experts from Baltimore, which has its own program.Prince George's, which had 3,267 AIDS cases last year, is second in the state behind Baltimore, which had 19,693, according to statistics from the county's Health Department. Intravenous drug users account for about 30 percent of the AIDS cases, Hendershot said. Health officials have no estimate for how much demand there would be in the county for a needle exchange program.HIV experts, such as Steffanie A. Strathdee, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health who monitors Baltimore's needle exchange program, said there is ample evidence that such programs have helped reduce the number of AIDS and HIV cases in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, B.C. In Baltimore, she said, the HIV caseload has declined 35 percent since 1994 as a result of a needle exchange program.And there is no evidence, she said, that needle exchange programs encourage drug addicts to move to an area where they can get clean needles. "Drug addicts move to a location to get drugs," Strathdee said. "They don't move there for needles."Shapiro said the legislation is a flawed, yet effective way of saving lives. "Anything we can do to stop the spread of AIDS is the right thing to do," he said. "This does not promote drug use; it stops the spread of HIV. It's the ethical thing to do."Council member Marvin F. Wilson (D-Glenarden) said as a short-term solution, a needle exchange program makes sense."Some may think you're supporting people with a habit, but that's not our intent," he said. "Our intent is to buy time, until we find something to help them get off it. It's a sickness. You're not going to win with everyone, but if you save a few, it's worth trying." By Paul SchwartzmanWashington Post Staff WriterWednesday, February 9, 2000; Page M03  Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company CannabisNews Search of Needle Exchange Articles: 
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