Harm reduction in New York City came under attack last weekend when the tabloid New York Post ran an article titled Heroin for Dummies, excoriating the city for spending $32,000 for a 2007 harm reduction pamphlet that, among other things, gave injection drug users advice on how to reduce the harm of injecting. Since then, the story has been picked up by the New York Times and national media, including CNN and Fox News.
uncomfortable, but the right thing to do
But while the assault on evidence-based harm reduction practices is worrisome, it also sparked a vigorous defense of the pamphlet from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city health officials and has provided an opportunity to broaden public awareness of harm reduction. By Thursday, despite demands that they be pulled, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley had decided that the pamphlets will continue to be distributed
The pamphlet, Take Charge, Take Care, was distributed by the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and was aimed at injection drug users in the city. The harm reduction purpose behind it was to save lives and prevent overdoses and the spread of blood-borne disease. It counsels things like quitting, not sharing needles, and seeking treatment.
But also included in its advice were things like "Find the vein before you try to inject," "If you don't register [hit the vein], pull out and try again," and "Warm your body (jump up and down) to show your veins." Such common-sense harm reduction advice was like waving a red flag for Post and the drug warriors it interviewed.
"It's basically step-by- step instruction on how to inject a poison," said John Gilbride, head of the DEA's New York office. "It concerns me that the city would produce a how-to on using drugs," Gilbride said. "Heroin is extremely potent. You may only get the chance to use it once. To suggest there is a method of using that alleviates the dangers, that's very disturbing."
"It's sick," said City Council member Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Queens), chair of the council's public safety committee, who vowed to try to shut down distribution of the pamphlet. "This is a tremendous misuse of city funds, and I'm going to see what I can do to stop it. It sends a message to our youth: give it a try," he fumed.
"What we do not want to do is suggest that there's anything safe about shooting up narcotics," said Bridget Brennan, the city's special narcotics prosecutor. "No matter how many times you wash your hands or how clean the needle is, it's still poison that you're putting in your veins."
Only at the very end of the Post article was any supporter of harm reduction or the pamphlet given a say. "Our goal is to promote health and save lives with this information," explained Daliah Heller, assistant commissioner for the Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Use Prevention, Care and Treatment. "From a health perspective, there is a less harmful way to inject yourself."
The New York Times article the following day was less one-sided than the Post's hit piece, but still gave Vallone and other critics top billing. "You're spending taxpayer money and getting a how-to guide for first-time users," Vallone claimed.
The pamphlet was "absolutely not" a how-to manual, Dr. Adam Karpati, executive deputy commissioner for the health department's division of mental hygiene, told the Times. "Our primary message, as it is in all our initiatives, is to help people stop using drugs and to provide them with information on how to quit," Karpati said, adding that health officials recognized that quitting was not a realistic expectation for all drug users.
While Karpati was playing defense, harm reduction supporters went on the offensive. "The Health Department's booklet is solidly grounded in science and public health," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "But the same cannot be said of the irresponsible comments by John Gilbride, Bridget Brennan, and Peter Vallone, Jr. These sorts of reckless statements by top level city and federal law enforcement agents need to be repudiated by their superiors in city and federal government."
On Monday, Mayor Bloomberg defended the pamphlet. "I would certainly not recommend to anyone that they use hard drugs or soft drugs," Bloomberg said. "But our health department does have an interest in if you're going to do certain things to get you to do it as healthily as you possibly can."
Now that the flap is behind them, two leading harm reductionists are assessing what it all means. "There was a political agenda at work with this," said Allan Clear, head of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "The District Attorney's Office fed this to the Post. This is a deliberate attack, and it follows on the footsteps of Rockefeller drug law reform, where DAs had some of their power stripped away. This was a red rag for foes to wave to provoke people, when the amount spent on the brochure is relatively small."
"This was not a book for people who have never injected," said Robert Heimer, professor at the Yale School of Public Health. "We know that people use opiates for around three years before they start injecting, and they don't do it because of a pamphlet, but because they are following their friends' example. This pamphlet was distributed at needle exchanges, STD clinics, drug treatment centers, and to people leaving Rikers Island. That's who the audience is, not people who have never injected."
Neither Clear nor Heimer thought much of the press coverage, although Clear was more charitable to the Times than Heimer. "The brochure has been deceptively portrayed consistently in all the articles," said Clear. "This is a manual aimed at people who are using injection drugs. The first thing it says is if you want help, call this number. If you compare the articles in the Post and the Times, the anti-drug user invective in the Post was just horrendous and demonstrated a very biased position to begin with," said Clear. "The conversation in the Times was much more pro-public health and sympathetic."
"The Times article was incredibly negative," said Heimer. "The first eight or ten paragraphs were all the opposition, and only after that do you get to the health department and why it's a common sense public health approach. When you have 'liberal media' like the Times and rightwing Murdoch papers like the Post both condemning you, you are under a lot of pressure to change."
When all is said and done, did the pamphlet flap turn out to be a boon or a bane for harm reduction? Again, the two men differed.
"When you get this on Fox News or CNN and people are talking about it, even though the initial effort was to discredit the brochure, it actually brought harm reduction to public consciousness in a good way," said Clear. "While we feel attacked, there has been a lot of positive response, and this has raised the profile of harm reduction and the need to educate drug users. The public reaction hasn't been that bad; in fact, it's been quite good."
"Any time there is negative press, it's not good for harm reduction," said Heimer. "It's still fragile here. In places like Holland, Britain, Canada, and Australia, harm reduction is one of the four pillars -- prevention, treatment, law enforcement, harm reduction -- but in this country, very little is done about prevention, there is not enough drug treatment because there is not enough emphasis on demand reduction, and we spend all our money on supply reduction, and we know how that has worked."