Needle exchange measure gets preliminary support in Senate

March 11, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

A divided Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill that would allow Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties to set up needle exchange programs.

The proposal provoked a sharp election-year debate among lawmakers who called it tantamount to sanctioning drug abuse and others who argued that giving out clean needles reduces the spread of the deadly AIDS virus.

The legislation was intended to allow such programs statewide, but 20 of the 23 counties withdrew through an amendment that split senators along ideological and regional lines. Four Baltimore County senators also tried to exempt their districts but failed.

Proponents introduced the measure to encourage counties with a large number of AIDS cases to follow Baltimore City, whose needle exchange program has been credited with significantly slowing the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

"It's proven to be effective," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, the sponsor and a Prince George's Democrat. "It puts in place the option [for counties]. Are we saying you have to? Absolutely not."

But Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, argued such programs condone the actions of people who inject heroin and cocaine.

He noted Baltimore County has no plans to imitate the city and allow addicts to trade in dirty needles for clean ones. Montgomery officials also said they don't want a needle exchange.

Prince George's health officer Arthur G. Thacher was somewhat enthusiastic but cautioned the program would be costly and require expanded drug treatment programs. "It's a good public health program, provided it's adequately funded, and funding in Prince George's County is problematic," he said. "If it's approved, we'll discuss it."

Prince George's has the second-highest AIDS rate in Maryland, with 175 cases reported last year. Baltimore was first with 515 cases, while Montgomery County had 70 and Baltimore County 53.

The bill faces uncertain prospects of passage this week, though votes on amendments yesterday suggest enough support to send it to the House. Since 1994, when the legislature approved Baltimore's program, the city has exchanged clean needles for dirty ones from 7,000 drug abusers.

Pub Date: 3/11/98

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