House endorses needle-exchange program for city

March 18, 1994|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Sun Staff Writer

Prodded by the appeals of three black Baltimore lawmakers, the House of Delegates yesterday agreed to let the city set up a small needle-exchange program for drug users, making passage the initiative by the full General Assembly virtually certain.

The anti-AIDS program -- Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's top priority during this year's legislative session -- passed the House by a vote of 84-51, with all but two of the city's 27-member delegation endorsing it.

"I'm very pleased," Mr. Schmoke said. "The size of the vote indicates a strong endorsement of the program. I hope this means the bill will move along to the governor's desk as quickly as possible."

The mayor has been urging the legislature to give him the authority to institute the program for three years, asserting that it would save lives without encouraging drug use.

This year, Gov. William Donald Schaefer reversed his opposition, highlighting his change of heart in his State of the State address and delivering the authority that has powered the measure to the brink of enactment.

The Senate on Wednesday passed a virtually identical bill by the narrowest of margins, 24-23.

It remains only for one chamber to approve the other's bill and the governor to sign it into law.

Amid the city's jubilation, a small cloud appeared late yesterday, when the governor's spokeswoman, Page W. Boinest, declined to state unequivocally that Mr. Schaefer would sign the measure.

She said the governor would weigh the pros and cons before making his decision.

The bill, if enacted and signed, would allow Mr. Schmoke to set up a 3-year pilot program in which selected drug users would be permitted to exchange up to 10 used needles and syringes at a time for sterile ones provided by the city.

The mayor needs the legislation because he cannot implement the program without an exemption from state law that forbids the distribution of drug paraphernalia.

Needle-exchange advocates say that the program will help prevent the spread of AIDS by intravenous drug users.

With free, clean needles available, supporters say, addicts would be less inclined to share used ones that may be infected.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city health commissioner, has said that the program could prevent 13 cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome in its first year alone. In Baltimore, 70 percent of new HIV infections are attributed to intravenous drug use.

The human immunodeficiency virus causes AIDS.

Opponents argued that such a program will encourage and facilitate drug use, while creating the impression that the state sanctions the consumption of illegal narcotics.

Despite the narrow margin of the Senate vote, House passage had seemed likely in recent days, but not by the huge 33-vote margin by which it carried.

Del. Ronald A. Guns, a Cecil County Democrat and the bill's floor leader, ascribed the surprisingly easy victory to floor statements by three city delegates -- Democrats Elijah E. Cummings, Ruth M. Kirk and Clarence Davis.

In an impassioned address, Mr. Cummings said, "When you go to those funerals, as I do, and see those shriveled-up bodies, as I do. . . . It's not very easy."

Mr. Cummings said his West Baltimore district leads the state in AIDS deaths, then said, "The bottom line we have to deal with is, people are dying. They are dying!"

He said drug abusers are not the only ones affected when HIV is transmitted by needles, describing for his colleagues the cries of AIDS babies he said he has heard at Mercy Medical Center.

"They scream like no baby you ever heard scream," he said.

Mr. Davis, an East Baltimore delegate, said the bill was not a comprehensive answer to the drug problem, but rather a "straw" that will help.

"If this passes, it will allow us to keep our parks and places where our children play free of needles," he said. "Give us this straw."

The most dramatic plea came from an unlikely quarter, Ms. Kirk, who said she was speaking for a bill on the floor for the first time in 12 years in the House.

The Baltimore delegate said she had lost two brothers -- both, she believes, to AIDS.

"This is an important bill," she said, "to the children, my children, and others to come."

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