David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 7/18/03
An oft-repeated play of confusion with tragic consequences is unfolding once more. Enlightened, rational people in the state of Delaware want to make needle exchange legal and allow communities to begin the urgent work of saving lives. Others with less sense won't let them.
Delaware, which like neighboring New Jersey has particularly restrictive laws preventing syringe availability -- the states ban both syringe possession for non-prescription use and non-prescription sale or purchase -- has the nation's fifth highest rate of reported HIV cases. (New Jersey also ranks near the top.) AIDS is the second largest cause of death among residents of the First State between the ages of 25 and 44. And half of Delaware's AIDS cases are found among injection drug users and their partners.
One of the obstacles to needle exchange in Delaware is Senate Health and Human Services Committee chair Patricia Blevins (D-Elsmere), who considers needle exchanges programs to promote drug use and instead favors the standard pseudo-liberal combination of jailing drug dealers and treating addicts. But Blevins' viewpoint derives from a combination of ignorance and illogic.
It is ignorant to claim that needle exchange promotes drug use, because doing so ignores a mountain of evidence to the contrary. There have been eight major federal or federally-funded reviews of the research on needle exchange programs. These were carried out during the years 1991 through 2000, when the issue was hot on the government's radar screen and deregulation of federal AIDS grants to permit states to use them to fund needle exchange programs (NEPs) was being considered by Washington (http://www.dogwoodcenter.org). Each of these studies addressed the questions, among others, of whether NEPs reduce the spread of HIV, and whether NEPs increase community drug use. In each case, they found that yes, NEPs do reduce HIV and AIDS; and no, NEPs don't increase the use of drugs. These are the two findings federal legislation requires to be made before an administration can lift the federal needle exchange funding ban.
It is ignorant of economic law, or illogical in not applying it, to claim as Blevins has that prosecuting drug dealers in Delaware reduces Delaware's addiction rate. Prosecuting and incarcerating drug dealers does nothing to reduce addiction. Taking one drug dealer off the streets creates a business opportunity for another -- the supply of drugs fills the demand -- and jailing dealers hasn't even increased drug prices, as the smarter drug warriors looked for to happen.
And providing treatment for addicts, while potentially worthwhile, at best reduces the length of time for which some addicts remain addicted. By definition treatment does nothing to reduce the number of people who become addicted; treatment is after the fact, not preventive. And treatment doesn't protect injection drug users from the dangers of street drugs or drug-using equipment, of which exposure to diseases like HIV and hepatitis are only one. As AIDS prevention advocates have pointed out countless times: "Dead addicts don't recover." It's all so simple.
Blevins' senate colleague, Margaret Rose Henry (D-Wilmington East) understands at least of some of the truths that Blevins can't or won't, and continues to champion needle exchange legislation in Delaware's legislature. She has garnered an impressive array of support, at the national and state level, from medicine, public health, law enforcement, even officials of her own city, who want to start a needle exchange to stem the crisis but need the state's permission to do so.
Unfortunately, prejudice dies hard. The state has not allowed Wilmington to move forward, much less changed Delaware's laws overall. Sadly, many more of Delaware's weakest will have to suffer and die before needle exchange opponents listen to reason. And the same story could be told of numerous states and communities around our nation and countless individuals and families whose lives have or will be permanently scarred, because of a bad idea, held against all evidence, by people with neither the right nor the reason to believe that they know better.