Schaefer reluctantly OKs needle exchange

May 03, 1994|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

Despite personal misgivings, Gov. William Donald Schaefer yesterday signed into law legislation establishing a pilot needle exchange program in Baltimore designed to stem the devastating spread of AIDS among drug addicts.

The three-year experiment should be in operation by July 1. It will involve 750 to 1,000 of the city's estimated 48,000 addicts and most likely will be run from a mobile van that will regularly visit three yet-to-be-selected sites in the city, said Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city's health commissioner.

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome, Dr. Beilenson said, has become by far the leading cause of death among people between the ages of 25 and 44 in Baltimore.

An estimated 2,500 men, women and children have died of AIDS in Baltimore during the past decade, and at least 75 percent of new AIDS cases in the city last year were related to injected drug use, he said.

Mr. Schaefer called the needle exchange bill one "I do not favor [and] do not like."

But, on a morning in which he signed more than 340 bills into law -- including a measure to give landlords incentive to fix rental units contaminated with lead paint -- Mr. Schaefer said he signed the needle exchange bill because it was time to try something new to combat AIDS, and because Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had asked for it.

"It is so easy to say no, stay the same, don't take any chances, not be progressive," the governor said.

Mr. Schmoke praised Mr. Schaefer, saying, "Even though he had personal reservations about this bill, he recognized we needed to do some things that were not traditional in order to deal with the problem of AIDS."

During this year's General Assembly session, opponents argued that such a program would encourage and facilitate drug use while creating the impression that the state sanctions the consumption of illegal narcotics.

At the State House yesterday, Mr. Schmoke disagreed.

"This has nothing to do with decriminalizing drugs or anything to do with the general drug problem. This has to do with a health strategy to reduce the spread of AIDS," he said.

The city's pilot program is modeled after a successful needle exchange program in New Haven, Conn. But it will also have features that city health officials have borrowed from programs in San Francisco, Philadelphia and elsewhere, Dr. Beilenson said.

There are about 27 needle exchange programs in operation in the United States.

The Baltimore program will be voluntary, and addicts who

participate will be encouraged -- but not forced -- to enter drug treatment programs. Dr. Beilenson said a mobile van, similar to the type used in New Haven, will be driven to specific neighborhood locations for several hours each day, possibly six or seven days a week. He said one site will probably be in West Baltimore, one in East Baltimore, and one in central Baltimore, Cherry Hill or Pimlico.

"One reason I can't tell you is we have had more than a few neighborhoods ask" for the van, he said.

Dr. Beilenson said the program will cost the city about $160,000 a year but that the price is small compared with the approximately $102,000 a year the state spends to treat each patient with AIDS.

"Preventing the spread of disease and trying to get people off of drugs -- those are the two primary goals," he said.

Mr. Schaefer also signed several administration bills:

* He called the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act one of his major legislative accomplishments this year but said he had not decided whether to sign a separate bill requiring expanded screening of children to detect high levels of the poisonous metal from paint dust.

The Lead Poisoning Prevention Act shields landlords from lawsuits filed by tenants if the owners take steps to reduce lead-paint hazards at their properties. If any children still become poisoned, owners must offer to pay up to $17,000 for medical treatment and for moving the family to safer housing.

* The governor also signed a commercial fishing measure he sponsored that supporters said could revolutionize conservation of fish and shellfish in Maryland.

The bill, aimed at easing concerns about overfishing of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs, authorizes the Department of Natural Resources to limit the number of people who may catch crabs and other fish for sale.

* To discourage smoking among teen-agers and children, he signed a measure that will raise fines to as high as $3,000 for multiple violations of the prohibition against selling tobacco products to minors. The fine for a first offense will be $300.

The law also will make it illegal for minors to possess any tobacco product or cigarette rolling papers, or to use a fake identification to obtain tobacco products.

* To help students retain more of what they have learned and to reduce the need to build new schools, he signed a bill permitting six Maryland jurisdictions to experiment with year-round school schedules.

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