WASHINGTON MBB — WASHINGTON -- Alarmed by the rapid increase of AIDS cases stemming from drug use, the National Commission on AIDS today urged a radical policy change and recommended that addicts be given legal access to needles.
This recommendation flies in the face of federal and state laws intended to discourage drug use. It is contained in a report that sharply criticizes the Bush administration's anti-drug policies for failing to deal with the AIDS problem.
The commission is the first federal entity to recommend elimination of legal barriers to the purchase and possession of needles. It is an independent advisory body created by Congress to advise lawmakers and the White House.
The commission said such laws do not discourage drug use but encourage users to share needles, a practice that spreads the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. The percentage of AIDS cases related to intravenous drug use has been rising and now to tals 32 percent of all recent AIDS cases, the panel reported.
These cases include some caused by sexual contact with infected drug users. The commission cited another link between AIDS and drug use: Under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, people may neglect to use condoms, which block transmission of the virus.
In Baltimore, an ongoing study by the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health has found that 25 percent of addicts are infected with the AIDS virus and the number is increasing every year.
"To date, the national drug control policy has failed to address the coupling of the epidemics of HIV and substance use," said the commission report. "The failure to acknowledge this -- the obvious -- is bewildering and tragic."
The report quoted testimony by Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke Schmoke gave last December: "It is my firm belief that policies related to AIDS and policies related to drugs are so intertwined that . . . solutions to one will impact the other, and that it is necessary to consider both national drug policy and national policies related to AIDS."
The report calls for a large expansion of drug treatment programs as a key means of reducing HIV transmission by drug use.
It also urges an attack on the social problems that underlie drug use and contribute to the AIDS epidemic. The commission noted that the incidence of AIDS cases related to IV drug use is particularly high among blacks, Hispanics and women.
The report closely follows a study released last week by Yale University which said a needle-exchange program for addicts in New Haven, Conn., is helping to reduce the spread of the AIDS virus.
Baltimore is one of several cities where addicts can receive free bleach to clean needles between use. The commission said bleach and needle-exchange programs "have demonstrated the ability of substance users to change injection practices."
"Most significantly, these programs, rather than encouraging substance use, lead substantial numbers of substance users to seek treatment," the report said.
But the commission said carefully controlled needle-exchange programs aren't enough. Laws barring possession and sale of drug paraphernalia, and laws that require a prescription to obtain needles, must be changed, the report says.
"The very real fear that clean syringes and bleach vials will be used as evidence for arrest and prosecution may be having a 'chilling effect' on drug users' practice of safer injection behaviors," the report said.