Needle exchange reviewed Controversial program draws support, criticism

January 30, 1993|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

A legislative proposal to establish a needle-exchange program in Baltimore to help prevent the spread of AIDS among intravenous drug users won some heavyweight support yesterday -- and some heavyweight opposition as well.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. backed the plan to spend $50,000 in city funds for a three-year pilot program for up to 700 addicts that would be over- seen by the Baltimore Health Department.

But Gov. William Donald Schaefer said yesterday that he opposed the idea, fearing it would encourage drug use.

The proposed program, modeled after those in seven states, Washington, D.C., and eight foreign countries, would require an intravenous drug user to turn in a dirty hypodermic syringe in exchange for a clean one at a designated site.

Advocates note that needle sharing is one of the most common ways to spread acquired immune deficiency syndrome and argue that such programs have proven to curtail the spread of the AIDS virus among intravenous drug users.

"We're trying to get through all the rhetoric, all the people that talk about this being relaxation of morality, or encouraging anti-social or illegal activity. It's not," said Mr. Schmoke, a longtime advocate of a needle-exchange program, during an appearance yesterday before the city House delegation in Annapolis.

"This is a practical step to improve the health of the community, to cut down on the spread of AIDS and to protect innocent people," Mr. Schmoke said.

One-third of AIDS cases in the United States stem from intravenous drug use, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Baltimore, the figure is even higher -- 42 percent, or 807 of 1,995 cases, the mayor's office said.

The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health estimates that 25 percent of the city's 40,000 intravenous drug users test positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. And four to five new cases of HIV infection occur each day, the school said.

Mr. Curran, a likely Democratic candidate for governor, told the delegation that the exchange programs "have everything to do with public health and common sense and nothing to do with drug decriminalization."

But Mr. Schaefer disagreed with that argument in an interview before the presentations of Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Curran.

"I don't believe in needle exchange. That encourages drugs," he declared. "So I'm not going to be for it. That's the beginning of an experiment that didn't work in Sweden."

Mr. Schaefer said Dr. Neil Solomon, chairman of the governor's alcohol and drug abuse commission, visited Sweden and told him that a needle-exchange program there was a "disaster."

Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, the Baltimore Democrat who is sponsoring the measure along with fellow city Democratic Del. Frank D. Boston, said she believed that the governor is confusing Sweden's needle-exchange program with a park in Sweden where drug use is allowed.

"I think he needs to be better informed," she said.

Moreover, the mayor's office cited a Yale University study of the New Haven, Conn., needle-exchange program that found no evidence of increased drug use as a result of the program.

A majority of the 27-member Baltimore House delegation support the proposed needle-exchange program, said Ms. Marriott, who introduced a similar measure late in last year's session. The bill failed to win support in the House Environmental Matters Committee. This year the measure has been referred to the Judiciary Committee, where its prospects are uncertain.

The proposed program requires approval by the General Assembly because an exemption is needed from the state's drug paraphernalia law, which prohibits unauthorized ownership of hypodermic syringes.

The legislation would require the program to include anti-drug and AIDS counseling and would require the mayor to appoint an oversight committee. The city Health Department would be required to evaluate the program and submit reports under the measure.

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