Editorial: Needle exchange is still illegal in New Jersey... but that doesn't make it wrong 8/29/97

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During his 1996 re-election campaign, President Clinton was addressing a group of Maryland high school students when he turned to the subject of drugs. "Drug use is illegal, and therefore it is wrong." Said the President. And the error of that statement, while seemingly innocuous, especially given the noble intention of trying to convince young people to stay away from drugs, is nonetheless an important and even a corrupt misinterpretation of the relationship between the law and morality.

Diana McCague is founder and director of the Chai Project, a needle exchange program in New Brunswick, New Jersey. At night she drives a cab so that she can afford to continue this work, which she considers a matter of life and death. Her exchange will provide over 80,000 clean syringes to IV drug users this year in an effort to slow the spread of AIDS. Of the total AIDS cases in New Jersey, approximately 50% are the direct result of shared injection equipment, while another 20% are indirectly related, having been sexually transmitted to the partners of IV drug users or to their children. Through the end of 1996, an estimated 19,100 New Jersey residents, age 13 and older, either had injection-related AIDS or had died from it.

Needle exchange programs have been found in study after study to reduce the transmission of the AIDS virus, as well as other blood-borne pathogens such as hepatitis, all without any measurable increase in drug use prevalence. Their existence has been endorsed by the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others. But in New Jersey, the state with the third highest rate of injection-related AIDS in the nation, they are against the law.

Governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey is no fan of needle exchange. She has said that she believes that making sterile syringes available to drug users will only lead to more drug use. But feeling pressure from AIDS activists and public health proponents, she asked her own advisory committee on AIDS to study the issue last year. Their findings were consistent with all that had already been known. In addition, they said, the availability of clean needles would save New Jersey millions of dollars in health care costs.

But Governor Whitman apparently had more to worry about than the lives of thousands of her citizens and their families. Governor Whitman is thought to be a rising star in the Republican party, and needle exchange was not an issue that she wanted on her resume. So after much consideration, she decided to ignore the facts and the statistics and the families and her advisory council. And today, it is still illegal to exchange new syringes for used in Governor Whitman's New Jersey.

Diana McCague was arrested earlier this year by an undercover cop for providing him with a sterile syringe in violation of NJ Statute 2C 36-6. At her trial, Judge Brenner of the New Brunswick Municipal Court called her a "modern day Joan of Arc" and said that he would be proud to have her for a daughter. But Diana McCague had broken New Jersey law, and so he found her guilty, and sentenced her for her crime.

There are an estimated 46,000 injection drug users in New Jersey who are still HIV negative. And so, illegal or not, convicted criminal that she is, Diana McCague continues to get into her van and drive the streets of New Brunswick to provide her clients with the opportunity to live long enough to beat their addictions. And she is not "wrong".

Law does not define morality. Law is made by people. And the power of people to create law does not give them the power, nor necessarily the insight, to make moral determinations. Rosa Parks broke the law. So did Martin Luther King, and the Refuseniks in the Soviet Union, and Ghandi, and Nelson Mandella, and a bunch of guys who dressed up as Native Americans and dumped tea into the Boston Harbor. And if those kids at that high school in Maryland last year were listening very carefully to their president, they now know that the courageous acts of all of those people were "wrong" because they were illegal. Or maybe those kids would have been better off listening to Diana McCague.

Adam J. Smith
Associate Director, DRCNet

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Issue #9, 8/29/97 International News: US Claims Progress, Fog Lifting in UK Drug Policy, March in Germany, Mexico Blood Bath | Drug War Corruption: Employees at points of entry find that crime pays better than baggage handling | Medical Marijuana: California Attorney General adds a surprising voice to calls for research | Student Drug Testing: An old and nearly forgotten phrase is uttered by a New Jersey judge... Probable cause | Media Alert: The Wall Street Journal hits the nail on the head with regard to the Drug War's destruction of Colombia's society | Justice and Human Rights: Criminal justice systems out of control in the US and China | Link of the Week: Shedding light on the impact of America's overused criminal justice system | Quote of the Week: Drug Czar McCaffrey has figured out one of the problems | Editorial: Needle exchange is still illegal in New Jersey... but that doesn't make it wrong
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