Needless confusion on needles

May 20, 1993

Ask Americans whether the nation's "war on drugs" is bein won or whether victory seems possible in the foreseeable future, and the pessimistic answers say a great deal about the extent of the problem facing this country.

Not only have massive government efforts failed to solve the country's drug problems, but now AIDS complicates the picture with a serious threat to public health. Even so, the debate about drug policy too often gets sidetracked by cheap and easy rhetoric. A discussion Tuesday before the Governor's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Commission provided a case in point.

The debate centered on the city's proposal for a needle-exchange program for hard-core addicts. This plan is not a frivolous or irresponsible venture, but a careful and essential effort to combat a frightening increase in HIV infection among intravenous drug users in the city.

Current estimates are that 25 percent of the city's 40,000 intravenous drug users now carry the virus that causes AIDS, and that the infection spreads to four or five more users each day. Of all the city's AIDS cases, 42 percent stem directly from intravenous drug use, a higher percentage than other cities.

Those figures represent a public health problem of enormous dimensions. It may sound good to worry loudly about the possibility of promoting drug abuse with such plans -- or even about the dangers of "confused" law enforcement policies, as State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms did in opposing the plan. In fact, however, these aarguments are versions of the kind of head-in-the-sand politics that has produced a budget deficit that threatens to cripple this nation's future. Ignoring the spread of AIDS among intravenous drug users increases the possibility the virus could spread.

Seven other states and eight foreign countries have instituted needle exchange programs and found them effective. Not only do they reduce the spread of AIDS, but they are also helpful in encouraging addicts to seek treatment. An additional advantage not unimportant to law-abiding city residents -- is that such programs reduce the number of used needles littering neighborhood playgrounds, backyards and alleys. Remember, the program is an exchange, not a giveaway.

Yet the General Assembly refused the city permission to conduct a trial program -- in large part because suburban legislators didn't want to have to explain a vote that might appear questionable to some constituents. Now, it seems, some city politicians are equally unwilling to take a courageous stand. If that lack of vision wins the day, Maryland will pay a high price.

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