Why a Needle-Exchange Program is a Bad Idea

GIVING clean needles to addicts is no way to solve the drug problems that plague our society. So the court decision last week to block such a program is OK with me. Needle programs only help drug addicts stay high.

The drug problem is more than rampant AIDS and hepatitis infections, which a clean needle program would fix.

While it is argued that they slow down the spread of HIV, clean- needle programs are inherently destructive. They address only one symptom, but give the illusion of solving the multi-pronged drug addiction problem.

The court’s ban is not absolute, however, and unfortunately needle-exchange programs are so pervasive that one is inevitable for cities in this state.

New Jersey’s Appellate Court ruled that the proposed needle- exchange program would violate state laws on drug paraphernalia. Only hospitals, clinics and health care professionals are legally permitted to have hypodermic needles.

Even though legislators could clear the way for New Jersey to adopt a limited needle-exchange policy, they should take the time to think this proposal through and reject what other NEP states have legitimized as an instant solution to drug problems

Clean needles are not a panacea.

Atlantic City and Camden were only looking for approval to try an experimental program, based on former Gov. Jim McGreevey’s declaration last year of a public health emergency. He said that adopting a program to legally put sterile needles in the hands of drug users was essential for controlling the spread of HIV.

Although clean-needle-exchange programs have been adopted by many cities, including New York City, it’s ultimately a bad idea. It addresses only HIV and hepatitis infections and does nothing about the other criminal, medical and social aspects of drug addiction.

For example:

* Giving out clean needles does not discourage drug dependence.

* Addicts still are prone to death, perhaps not from HIV, but from overdose, collapsed veins, poisoned dope, or the violence and criminality that go along with the illicit drug trade.

* Drug-addicted mothers will still deliver drug-addicted babies.

* Sterile needles don’t address the underlying problems addicts are avoiding.

* Sterile needles offer the path of least resistance rather than address underlying psychoses.

* Drugs destroy families when all the house money is paying for drugs, lawyers and treatment.

* It does nothing to stop drug gangs from killing one another.

Among the vocal opponents to the plan, state Sen. Ron Rice of Newark sees needles – clean or dirty – as another destructive element in the inner city communities that he represents. He’s one of the plaintiffs in a pending suit that challenges needle exchange.

Many of his constituents are not that ready to trust the motives of needle-exchange advocates. The distrust is deeply rooted in incidents like the Tuskegee experiment, which endangered the lives of residents infected with syphilis without their knowledge. And it’s not only the sting of past experience. More recently confirmed is decades of government-sanctioned testing of AIDS drugs on children in foster care.

Paterson Mayor Joey Torres had the good sense to keep his city from getting involved as a testing lab. He risks political opprobrium since his city has the third largest HIV rate in the state and a drug problem that The Record has recently chronicled.

Paterson was eligible to be one of nine demonstration cities for the needle exchange, but Torres declined to submit an application.

There are better ways of attacking the drug problem than legally sanctioning a clean-needle-giveaway – such as creating more opportunities for counseling, funding rehab clinics, and providing more health care coverage for uninsured drug users.

The clean-needle opponents should continue raising objections to this evil practice that makes it easier for drug addicts to stay drugged.

Needle-exchange programs have proven they can cut the death rate and the spread of HIV and hepatitis caused by sharing dirty syringes. But they don’t address the less tangible issues that lead people into drug dependence.

A needle exchange sanctions bad behavior. It suggests that if you’re persistent enough doing the wrong thing, you’ll be rewarded with official permission to keep doing it.


Record Columnist Lawrence Aaron can be contacted at [email protected]. Send comments about this column to [email protected].