Few Attend Hearings on Needles

Few Attend Hearings on Needles
Posted by FoM on March 08, 2000 at 05:41:00 PT
By Paul Schwartzman, Washington Post Staff Writer
Source: Washington Post
County Council leaders last week had a series of forums that they had hoped would help them gauge public sentiment about a proposed needle exchange program for intravenous drug users in Prince George's.Only one problem: The forums drew a combined total of 17 residents.
The low turnout mystified council Chairman Dorothy F. Bailey (D-Temple Hills), who had expected many from the county's religious community. Several pastors have criticized the proposal, which would allow drug addicts to trade dirty needles for clean ones at county health facilities."I'm not sure what it means," Bailey said of the low attendance. "I had expected a much larger turnout. Maybe I've made it more of an issue than it really is."The proposal's supporters interpreted the light attendance as a signal of public support."I believe it communicates that they are willing to have a public health program," said Del. Melony Griffith (D-Suitland), sponsor of a law that enabled the council to decide whether to set up a needle exchange program.But opponents countered that no conclusions should be drawn."I don't think a great many people knew about the meetings," said council member Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville).Maloney dismissed the forums as a tightly scripted vehicle for the proposal's supporters to stage a one-sided argument. "The whole thing was a fix," he said. "It was not an even-handed show. There's a helluva lot of opposition to this."But council member Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood) said the forums were intended to "give people the opportunity to hear the information and to support it or to complain." "I also think that this is the right thing to do," he said. "We have a moral imperative to save lives if we can."The forums were in District Heights, Langley Park and Brandywine.Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) introduced the needle exchange proposal last month. The council's health committee is to begin reviewing the bill March 23.Two of the council's nine members--Hendershot and Shapiro--support the proposal, and two members--Maloney and Isaac J. Gourdine (D-Fort Washington)--oppose it.The council's remaining members have not taken a position.Bailey, who attended the 90-minute forum in District Heights, said she reached no conclusion after listening to health and drug treatment experts outline the program and its potential benefits. The audience of 14 consisted mostly of council members' aides and county health officials. There also were three residents and District Heights Mayor Jack C. Simms."It's a health issue, either way you look at it," Bailey said. But she also is concerned that the program would send the message that the county condones drug use."I'm still wrestling with it," Bailey said. "I'm going to pray about it, then make a decision."Prince George's had 3,267 AIDS cases in 1999, second in the state to Baltimore, which had 19,693, according to county health officials. They estimate that 30 percent of the AIDS patients are intravenous drug users.Health officials say that Baltimore has reduced its HIV caseload by 30 percent since 1994 because of its needle exchange program.Nevertheless, it appears that no amount of statistics will influence some."It's a public relations campaign to shove it down the throats of the community," Gourdine said after sitting through a presentation at Union Bethel AME Church in Brandywine. "It sends a bad message to people in the Washington metro area, that our drug problem is so bad we need a needle exchange program."Two of the residents at the meeting thanked him for opposing the proposal. "This puts people in a position where we're not going to judge drug use," said Kelly Howells, 38, a homemaker. "We must judge it. It is poor moral judgment that gets people in trouble."John F. Grazioso, a Brandywine resident, fears that the program will draw drug addicts to the county--a fear that has been disputed by academics. "It's supportive of habits and lifestyles that the community shouldn't tolerate," he said. "I also think it's one of those things that will make Virginia a more attractive place to live." By Paul SchwartzmanWashington Post Staff WriterWednesday, March 8, 2000; Page M02  Copyright 2000 The Washington Post CompanyRelated Articles: Needle Swap Program Planned Costa Supervisors Approve Needle-Exchange Push for Safe Needles 
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