Taylor West, [email protected]
A bill that would effectively ban legal needle exchange in the state of New York has been introduced into the state assembly by Eric Vitaliano, a Democrat from Staten Island. The legislation comes on the heels of recent plans to launch a needle exchange program in that borough and New York Governor George Pataki's appointment of Dr. Antonia C. Novello as Health Department Commissioner.
Vitaliano's bill would rescind the provision in New York's state code (Title VII, Section 3381) that allows the Commissioner to grant exemptions for individuals and "classes of persons" from the state's law against the possession or distribution of hypodermic instruments. That provision has allowed for the establishment of 12 state-licensed needle exchange programs throughout New York since 1992.
Kristine Smith, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, stated the department's opposition to the bill. "We do not support this legislation. We feel that our needle exchange programs have been very successful in reaching out to individuals who otherwise may never come in contact with treatment and prevention opportunities. It is important also to stress our commitment to gaining community support before we establish each exchange." Newly confirmed Commissioner Novello has also publicly stated her personal support for New York's needle exchange programs.
The Staten Island AIDS Task Force recently requested permission from the Health Department to begin a mobile needle exchange program on the island. The final decision has not yet been made, but the Task Force is moving ahead with planning stages while awaiting the state's approval. Vitaliano wrote a letter to Governor Pataki opposing the program, but received no direct reply.
Elsewhere in New York, needle exchange activists' response to Vitaliano's bill was critical. Donald Grove, director of development for the New York-based Harm Reduction Coalition, remarked that the introduction of such a bill "shows just how little science and the reality of microbes and viruses has to do with elective politics."
Grove also related Vitaliano's campaign to those of others attacking needle exchange in the Empire State. "There has been a malicious movement to misinform the New York public about needle exchange programs," he told The Week Online. "This is another example of political goals obscuring the facts about a practice that has been proven to save lives and protect the public health."
The bill is not expected to advance far in the legislature, but Grove acknowledged that it may still affect the needle exchange cause. "Vitaliano's bill is like a Pat Buchanan campaign," he explained. "It is fairly clear that it won't succeed, but it will serve to yank the discussion and the agenda further in his direction. Instead of talking about preventing the spread of viruses and improving the public health, we'll be hearing the same unsubstantiated hysteria from the same parade of people. Every time this happens, it results in more scurrying around within the Health Department, more regulations and restrictions in order to protect public relations."
Meanwhile, Vitaliano's camp maintains its anti-needle exchange position. "There are better ways to prevent exposure to deadly diseases," the assemblyman stated in a press release. The press release did not elaborate on those ways.