David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected]
From Australia, where she attacked needle exchange as a policy led by "liberal morons" while on book tour, to the pages of newspapers around the United States, TV Judge Judy Sheindlin has drawn criticism for what writers and drug treatment specialists condemn as "callousness."
This commentary was not written as part of an anti-Judge Judy effort, but rather to take this as an educational opportunity to elucidate some of the complexities of an issue that our opponents often characterize in all too simple terms. However, a closer look at Sheindlin's statements on the issue shows that criticism is deserved.
First of all, many of the groups that have called for needle exchange, such as the American Medical Association, can be scarcely be thought of as either "liberal" or "moronic." Needle exchange is favored by an overwhelming consensus in the professions concerned with public health. In Sheindlin's own city of Los Angeles, in fact, needle exchange is supported by the Republican mayor, Richard Riordan.
Responding on her web site to public comment, Sheindlin wrote, "Anybody who thinks that I would advocate the government supplying tainted needles to addicts is a fool. However, I have seen, during my 25 years of court experience the innocent victims of drugs -- thousands of victims of violent crime perpetrated by addicts looking for money for their next fix and countless thousands of innocent babies born drug addicted who never recovered from their birth defects. These are the innocents -- and they have no choice. Addicts have a choice." In her previous book, Sheindlin wrote about the clients of a needle exchange program, "Since none of these characters looked like they worked on Wall Street or anywhere else I knew that the money to support their 300 dollar a day habits came from victims: people who were killed maimed or, if they were lucky, only emotionally, traumatized for life."
The victims of crime and irresponsible behavior should be recognized, to be sure. But Judge Judy fails to recognize another class of truly helpless victims: children born with HIV/AIDS. In June 1995, an episode of the Discovery Channel's Cronkite Report titled "The Drug Dilemma: War or Peace?" featured the case of a young boy struggling with AIDS. He was being cared for by his grandmother, because his mother had already died. She was not an injection drug user, nor was the boy's father; she had caught HIV from a previous boyfriend who, unknown to her, had been an injection drug user prior to their relationship. Sheindlin's scornful dismissal of needle exchange and the lives of addicts omits any acknowledgment of the consequences to larger society of allowing deadly infectious diseases to spread. Hepatitis C, a frequently fatal disease which spreads much more easily than HIV, may be an even bigger problem, also fueled by the unavailability of sterile syringes to drug users but placing all of us at risk.
Secondly, it is highly misleading to imply that all addicts are violent victimizers who rob innocent people at gunpoint. Some of them are, but many more finance their habits -- typically less than the $300 per day that Sheindlin cites -- through begging, prostitution, or reselling some of their drugs to other users, all of which are activities that involve willing participants, not victims. Do the nonviolent addicts deserve to die in extended misery for these sins? Can we trust the objectivity of a judge who thinks they do? We shouldn't trust the objectivity of anyone who described all addicts, or all people from any group, as the same or meriting the same treatment.
An even more basic issue is that the problem of crime by addicts exists because prohibition has made the drugs so expensive; it wasn't a major problem among opiate users before prohibition, and it's not a major problem among users who have enrolled in heroin maintenance programs in nations such as Switzerland and Great Britain. If Sheindlin really wants to reduce criminal victimization -- as opposed to merely judging and pontificating about it -- she should be advocating legalization, or at least medical drug maintenance for addicts, just as loudly as she now denounces needle exchange.
Sheindlin wrote on her web site, "What I do oppose is a policy which even tacitly sends the message that we, as a society, approve or condone drug use, and that includes free needles and a government sponsored place to shoot up."
This is a flawed viewpoint for at least two reasons. Most seriously, Sheindlin, similarly to politicians such as New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, has focused on the government funding question while ignoring the most basic and pressing side of the needle exchange issue -- legality. It is illegal to perform needle exchange in a majority of states in the U.S., and it is illegal in most states for pharmacies to sell syringes without seeing a prescription. Needle exchangers, working with volunteers and private funding, have literally been arrested, handcuffed and sent to jail, for trying to protect society by preventing the spread of disease. Blasting government handouts of free needles to addicts makes a good sound bite. It's a lot harder for drug warriors to criticize privately funded exchanges or letting users buy the syringes with their own money. But those options need to be brought up if we are to have an honest discussion of the issue, as opposed to demagoguery and entertainment.
Secondly, each of the several major studies of needle exchange programs, carried out by institutions such as the National Academy of Sciences, the University of California and the Centers for Disease Control, have concluded that needle exchange programs do not increase the use of drugs. Indeed, some exchanges have become the leading source of referrals to drug treatment programs in their communities -- programs that Sheindlin says she supports being funded. It is strange, then, that in her previous book, Sheindlin described needle exchanges as "social programs that keep junkies hooked." The evidence is that the programs are helping addicts find the help they need -- help to get off drugs when they're ready, and to stay alive and free of AIDS in the meantime.
Last but not least, we need to discuss the problem of drug use during pregnancy. No one thinks its a good idea. The medical evidence is that the birth defects Sheindlin cites are caused by use of the legal drugs alcohol and tobacco. Using opiates or cocaine during pregnancy can cause other problems and should very much be avoided. But the biggest problems in this area are from the legal drugs, both in frequency and severity. These are facts that were obscured in the media frenzy over "crack babies" -- a phenomenon that has not withstood scrutiny when correlated factors such as poverty, malnutrition and insufficient parenting skills are factored in -- but they are medical facts nonetheless. And even those who would disagree with that statement would certainly agree that alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy is a serious problem in its own right.
And Judge Judy would doubtless concur that women shouldn't drink or smoke during pregnancy to the point that their unborn children are harmed; perhaps it has even come up on her show. But will she advocate total prohibition of alcohol and nicotine, for all adults, at any time?
Hopefully Judge Judy is a fair and impartial arbiter of justice in the cases which come before her in court. But she is addicted to, or at least intoxicated by, drug war ideology, and is in denial of the overwhelming moral and scientific case for needle exchange.