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June 30, 2005 - Philadelphia Inquirer (PA)

Editorial: Needle-Exchange Program Politics Gets In The Way

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

What so possesses politicians that they would blind their eyes even to a public health crisis?

Usually, it's the hunt for votes in the next election.

Seven New Jersey legislators have obtained a court order to block temporarily needle-exchange programs in Camden and Atlantic City. Their shortsighted litigation stands in the way of a proven method to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS.

The seven - including ringleader state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R., Union) - - say they're acting in the public's interest. No, they are exploiting for their own political goals the public's understandable reluctance to take a step that some might view as assisting drug abuse.

A state appellate court granted the seven a temporary injunction blocking an executive order by former Gov. James McGreevey. McGreevey declared a public-health emergency and permitted Camden, Atlantic City, and a third unselected city to establish needle-exchange programs to fight AIDS and HIV.

Public health officials say one out of every 40 of Atlantic City's residents is HIV-positive. Camden, a city of 79,000, has more than 1,300 cases of HIV or AIDS.

The lawmakers' suit asserts that McGreevey illegally bypassed the Legislature. But their comments show it's not really the process but the result that they don't like.

Assemblyman Joe Pennacchio (R., Morris) says needle-exchange programs don't reduce the spread of AIDS, and instead "only encourage drug addicts to continue this self-destructive behavior." He's wrong on both counts.

The American Medical Association has endorsed needle exchange, so has the American Pharmaceutical Association. The National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine both say there "is no credible evidence" that needle exchange increases illegal drug use.

Pennacchio need only travel as far as Baltimore to find a city that credits needle exchange for a drop in drug overdoses to their lowest level in five years.

Through its needle-exchange program, Baltimore has even trained addicts to recognize overdoses and administer CPR and other life-saving measures.

Kean says needle-exchange proponents are "naive" to think a drug addict "will willingly forgo shooting up with a friend's needle until they can go to an exchange program to get a clean one."

Mr. Kean, the data show that this is exactly what a significant number of addicts will do. Not all of them, but enough to limit the transmission of HIV and AIDS.

The National Institutes of Health says needle exchange can reduce the sharing of dirty needles among drug addicts by as much as 80 percent. An International Journal of Drug Policy study of 99 cities worldwide showed HIV infections being reduced by 19 percent in cities with needle exchange and increasing 8 percent a year in cities without it.

New Jersey and Delaware are the only states left that do not permit needle exchange. With Massachusetts, the three are the only states in America that do not permit pharmacies to sell hypodermics without a prescription. Such sales also help reduce needle sharing.

The evidence is in and it's clear-cut. Needle exchange-programs not only help reduce HIV cases, they provide an opportunity to counsel addicts and get them into drug treatment. That can improve public health and reduce crime for all New Jerseyans.

If the court decision means the Legislature must pass a law for needle exchange to proceed, it should do it - quickly!

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