Baltimore needle-swap gains allies

February 18, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

Several of Maryland's most powerful public officials lent support yesterday to plans for a Baltimore needle-exchange program that the state legislature has rejected the past two years.

The proposal picked up momentum at a House committee hearing yesterday when the state's top health and public safety officers joined Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in urging lawmakers' approval.

And state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said they, too, back the plan.

The pilot program would allow drug addicts to exchange used needles for clean ones. Proponents argue that the exchange would prevent AIDS cases without leading to more drug addiction.

Legislators have blocked the plan twice before, saying they feared that it would encourage drug abuse. State Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini urged them to focus this time on the lives it could save.

"This is not the time for self-righteous posturing," Mr. Sabatini told a standing-room-only crowd at the House Environmental Matters Committee meeting. "It is time to help the mayor, who is dealing with one of the most difficult problems on the planet today."

Bishop L. Robinson, who oversees Maryland's prisons and the state police, said the program would encourage substance-abuse counseling and offer an alternative to building more jail cells.

"You can't arrest your way out, you can't prosecute your way out, and you can't build your way out" of the drug problem, Mr. Robinson said.

Outside the hearing, both the committee's chairman, Ronald A. Guns, a Cecil County Democrat, and its vice chair, Virginia M. Thomas, a Howard Democrat, said they thought that the panel will support the program.

The issue is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, where its future unclear.

Mr. Schmoke is asking for legislative help because he can't start the program without an exemption from a state law that forbids distribution of drug paraphernalia.

If given approval, the city would open several clinics this summer to accommodate 750 to 1,000 intravenous drug addicts, said city health commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson. The program would exchange up to 10 clean needles at a time.

Dr. Beilenson said the program could prevent 13 cases in the first year alone in a city where 70 percent of new HIV infections are attributed to intravenous drug use.

Considering the cost of the city-funded program -- $160,000 -- against the cost of caring for one AIDS patient -- at least $102,000 -- the program makes economic sense, Dr. Beilenson said.

"If we prevent just two cases, we'll be saving money," he said.

Needle exchange appears to be faring better in Annapolis this year for a couple of reasons. Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who opposed it last year, now supports it. And this year, the plan is playing to a more hospitable crowd.

In 1993, the House Judiciary Committee, which focuses on crime and law enforcement, blocked the plan over concerns about promoting drug use. This year, legislative committees that handle health issues are considering it, instead.

Although the plan appeared to receive a fairly warm reception from the House committee yesterday, members did have some questions and reservations.

Del. Anthony M. DiPietro, a Baltimore Democrat, asked if the city would be liable for damages if someone overdosed while using one of the free needles.

He also said he might vote against the bill because minors would be allowed to exchange needles without their parents' consent.

Mayor Schmoke said the city would be no more liable than it is for the various health services it already performs. He added that no one has sued a needle-exchange program in New Haven, Conn., on which the Baltimore program would be based.

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