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May 31, 2005 - Worcester Telegram & Gazette (MA)

Needle Exchange Program Could Make Difference For All

By Carlton Watson, executive director of the Willis Center in Worcester

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In classic mythology, the tyrant Dionysius had a sword suspended over the head of Damocles, held in place by only a single hair. Dionysius did this in order to show the precariousness of rank and power. The "sword of Damocles" has come to mean an ever-present peril hanging over one's head.

In the Sunday Telegram of May 22, there was an editorial cartoon illustrating the needle exchange issue. In that cartoon, a hapless-looking fellow labeled " Worcester" is seen sitting with a syringe suspended over his head that reads " needle exchange." The title of the cartoon is "Sword of Damocles, 2005."

I propose a different cartoon, also addressing the issue of clean-needle exchange. In this cartoon, the figure is a concerned looking African-American woman, since black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their white counterparts. The syringe hanging over her head is labeled HIV/AIDS. The title of the cartoon would also be "Sword of Damocles, 2005."

The cartoon I propose more clearly states what needle exchange means to the people of Worcester. People's lives, especially people of color, are at risk. Needle exchange can save their lives, without endangering the lives of others. The U.S. Surgeon General and Secretary of Health and Human Services have declared that there is conclusive scientific evidence that needle exchange programs do not increase illicit drug use, but do reduce the spread of HIV.

When I speak on issues of addiction, recovery and public policy, I do not usually bring racial issues into the conversation, since those issues are divisive and take attention away from the primary discussion of recovery and prevention issues. However, given the demographics of HIV and AIDS infection, the issue of needle exchange in Worcester is most certainly about race.

When we talk about people at risk for contracting HIV/AIDS, we are talking primarily about people of color. Fifty percent of newly infected HIV cases are young people under the age of 25 and 67 percent of the new AIDS cases among youth are African Americans. In fact, the HIV infection rate has doubled among blacks in the United States over the past decade, evidence of a widening racial gap in the epidemic that is producing an "epidemic of color."

It is apparent that access to AIDS prevention and treatment has taken its place as a civil rights issue. In the 1954 landmark civil rights case, the Brown v. Board of Education decision handed down by the Supreme Court was necessary to bypass local segregationist policies, in order to bring racial justice and fairness to local schools. Intervention by the federal government was needed to move forward on the important issue of racial desegregation of schools, because local authorities were mired in attitudes that prevented justice being served for all citizens.

Similarly, justice is ill-served in the needle exchange debate on the local level in Worcester. Loud voices continue to mis-educate the public regarding the efficacy of needle exchange programs as an HIV/AIDS prevention tool.

Those same loud voices do not fairly represent people of color, like myself, or advocates of needle exchange programs; rather, they repeatedly misrepresent facts and ominously foretell consequences of increased drug use that have not happened in other places with needle-exchange programs.

The facts are that needle exchange does not encourage drug use or drug addiction. However, needle exchange does significantly lower the HIV/AIDS infection rate. Needle exchange does not condone nor promote drug use. However, needle exchange does save lives, by decreasing the HIV/AIDS infection rate.

I am a citizen of color. Like my colleagues on the City Council, I, too, bemoan a loss of local control on this issue. But unlike them, I have not yet had access to local control. As a person of color, I do not see anyone on the City Council who represents my voice on this issue.

It is time for our state government, the commonwealth of Massachusetts, to act for the common good, and bring the city of Worcester to a safe and sane place where further devastation by HIV/AIDS can be averted. It is time for a needle exchange program in Worcester, one that serves all of us, regardless of color, regardless of rank or power.

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