Clergy Fears Needle Exchange Plan

Clergy Fears Needle Exchange Plan
Posted by FoM on March 01, 2000 at 05:41:11 PT
By Paul Schwartzman, Washington Post Staff Writer
Source: Washington Post
A proposal to create a needle exchange program for intravenous drug users in Prince George's County is stirring debate among religious leaders who are concerned that it will cause more illegal drug use.In interviews, several county-based pastors said they have serious reservations about a program being considered by the Prince George's County Council that would let drug addicts exchange dirty syringes for clean ones as a way of curtailing the spread of AIDS and HIV-related illnesses.
"Oh, my Lord," said the Rev. John B. Jenkins of First Baptist Church of Glenarden when told of the proposal. "They're going to give people needles so they can do something illegal? I can't support that."The Rev. Anthony Maclin, pastor at Glendale Baptist Church, said he wants to learn more about needle exchange programs and understand why some health experts advocate them. But the pastor also said that his main priority is to end drug use."In my opinion, it's like trading in a used gun for a new gun," said Maclin, whose church has 3,500 parishioners. "Do I have some reservations about this? Yes, I do."But the Rev. Jack Marcom of Fort Washington Baptist Church said he chooses to focus on the purported health benefits. If the program means that there are fewer dirty needles circulating, he said, so much the better."I don't like the drug problems, I don't like the drug culture, but we have them, so I can't sit here and wish we didn't," Marcom said. "It's too late to be preventative, except to prevent what kinds of diseases dirty needles give."The opposing views echo the ongoing debate within the council as it considers legislation proposed last month by council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton).As part of the review, council Chairman Dorothy F. Bailey (D-Temple Hills) took the unusual step of organizing three public forums that will focus on the legislation. The forums will take place tonight and tomorrow night."It's an educational forum. It's a chance to hear from the community," Bailey said.But council sources said that Bailey also wanted to give the county's vast religious community a formal setting in which to express what is expected to be opposition to the proposal.Although two of the council's nine members--Hendershot and Vice Chairman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood)--strongly support the legislation, two members--Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville) and Isaac J. Gourdine (D-Fort Washington)--are opposed."It sends a mixed message," Maloney said. "The first is, just say no to drugs. The second is, we're going to help you pursue your drug habit."Other members said they are unwilling to pledge support until they have measured public sentiment. Council member M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Croom), a possible candidate in the 2002 county executive's race, said he will not back the proposal if he thinks that large segments of the county are opposed."I can see some merit to it, but I can't see dividing the community over it. It's not worth going to war over," Estepp said. "If you're going to do something good for the community, then you need community support for it. If half the people fear it will open up drug use and facilitate that, I don't think it's worth it."But Hendershot and Shapiro argue that the needle exchange is a proven way of slowing the spread of AIDS. "It's the right and moral thing to do," Shapiro said.County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), who has not taken a position on the legislation, first raised the issue last fall when he asked the council to assess Prince George's County's need for a needle exchange program. Curry's request came after the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation allowing the county to implement such a program as a way to combat the spread of AIDS.Prince George's had 3,267 AIDS cases last year, second in the state behind Baltimore, which had 19,693, according to statistics furnished by the county health department. County officials estimate that 30 percent of the AIDS patients are intravenous drug users.Health officials contend that the needle exchange program has helped reduce Baltimore's HIV caseload by 35 percent since 1994.But that statistic is not likely to convince the likes of the Rev. Betty Peebles, senior pastor at Jericho City of Praise, although she said she will study the proposal."I'm open to complete abstinence and whatever we can do to get the word going that young people really need to think twice," Peebles said. "I look at it from a moral point of view, but I must not forget that there are people we must look out for."The forums:Today: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Langley Park Community Center, 1500 Merrimac Dr. in Langley Park. Today: 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Spaulding Library, 5811 Old Silver Hill Rd. in District Heights.Tomorrow: 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Union Bethel AME Church, 6810 Floral Park Rd. in Brandywine. By Paul SchwartzmanWashington Post Staff WriterWednesday, March 1, 2000; Page M03  Copyright 2000 The Washington Post CompanyRelated Articles:Different Approach in Baltimore to Drug Problem Hassles 
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