More needles

September 01, 1995

In the coming months Baltimore is expected to double the number of addicts participating in its needle exchange program and add 1,200 new drug treatment slots. But such action will hardly make a dent in what used to be called the drug war.

Few call it a "war" anymore. How can they when even the break-up of the Cali drug cartel in Colombia can't be viewed as a decisive victory? There's always another dealer out there. That's not meant to sound defeatist. It's being realistic. Reality is why the city gives addicts free needles.

Many critics still believe the city is promoting the use of illegal drugs by giving away needles. But it's not that simple. The 2,850 addicts who have used the city's free hypodermics are, as a result, less likely to get AIDS by sharing a dirty needle with someone who is HIV positive. And AIDS is the No. 1 killer of people ages 25-44 in Baltimore.

The health department has received an additional $160,000 from the city to buy a second van and provide the staff to double the number of addicts participating in the needle exchange program. In addition to the needles, addicts are offered counseling that could lead to drug treatment. More than 150 have followed that route in the past year.

To do more the city needs more drug treatment facilities. Empowerment Zone funds are being used to provide an additional 1,200 treatment slots. That money would be better spent directly on job creation. But proponents say some neighborhoods won't be ready for economic development until their drug problems are reduced.

In any case, the Empowerment Zone money will bring to only 7,900 the total number of drug treatment slots available in a city of 48,000 addicts. Aggressive outreach programs such as needle exchange can't reach their full potential with such severe limits on the number of people who can be referred for drug treatment.

Expanding the needle program makes sense, but the city must commit more than the $5 million in Empowerment Zone funds to additional drug treatment. If there is still a drug war, it can't be won until the demand no longer makes it lucrative to be a supplier. There are addicts who can change their lives, but they need help.

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