Needle bill nearly dies in Senate

March 15, 1994|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Staff Writer

A bill that would allow Baltimore to begin a pilot needle-exchange program appeared to die in the Maryland Senate last night, then was revived, and is expected to win approval.

Despite passionate pleas from Baltimore senators, the bill got only 23 votes -- one shy of the constitutional majority needed to pass a measure in the Senate. However, Sen. Paula Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat, later asked to have the Senate reconsider the bill.

One of the senators who was absent for the vote, Beatrice Tignor, a Prince George's County Democrat, is expected to vote for the bill a second time around, according to Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said he expected the bill to eventually pass.

It is not clear when the Senate will vote to reconsider the bill because a threatened filibuster on a measure to ban some semiautomatic pistols could postpone all other Senate business for some time. An identical needle exchange bill is pending in the House of Delegates.

Last night's Senate vote came as something of a surprise because the three most powerful people in state government -- the governor, the speaker of the House and the Senate president -- have all voiced support for the bill.

If enacted, it would allow Baltimore to open several clinics as early as this summer to accommodate 750 to 1,000 intravenous drug addicts.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city's health commissioner, has said the program could prevent 13 cases of HIV -- or human immunodeficiency virus which causes AIDS -- in the first year alone.

But in a debate last night that broke down at times along regional lines, some senators argued against the program, saying it would only encourage drug abuse and criminal activity.

"We are going to give criminals an instrument of death," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat.

Baltimore Sen. Larry Young asked for help from rural legislators, saying that if there were a fire in Western Maryland or a flood in Ocean City, other parts of the state would pitch in.

"For Baltimore City, this is our brush fire, this is our flood, this is our pain," Mr. Young said.

Last night's vote visibly angered Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who, for the third time in three years, is asking the legislature to allow a needle-exchange program.

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