Like the frightened, angry peasants who marched on Frankenstein's castle with their pitchforks and torches held aloft, the good citizens of Westport, Massachusetts, marched on their city leaders last week in a successful effort to fend off the menace of a needle exchange program (NEP). On April 25, the Westport Board of Selectmen unanimously approved an NEP to slow the spread of AIDS and Hepatitis C among injection drug users. But the board's quick action without public debate sparked a quick reaction among Westporters, and by April 27, the board reversed itself in the face of the angry citizenry.
It was an ugly display, according to coverage in the Westport Standard-Times. Hundreds of enraged residents crammed into city hall, yelling and screaming at selectmen, whose efforts to explain their votes in favor of the program were met by boos and shouts of "Step down, step down!" The spittle-flecked crowd was in no mood to be reasoned with. "How dare you take this action on your own," yelled one man, apparently incensed that the people he had elected to make decisions had made a decision he didn't like. "We're the voters. We're the taxpayers. You act for us, not yourselves," screamed another.
Gathered under an array of signs carrying messages such as "No Needle Exchange. No! No!" and "Selectmen Resign!" the crowd was even less inclined to listen to public health experts such as Dr. Josiah Rich of Miriam Hospital in neighboring Rhode Island, who helped convince the board Monday to approve the NEP. "I am an infectious disease specialist and..."
"Where you from?" a man asked.
"Providence, Rhode Island."
"Go back to Rhode Island. We don't need you in Westport," the man said.
Dr. Rich attempted to portray the rising anger at the meeting as misdirected anger about drug abuse. "I hate it when someone comes in to me and they are addicted to drugs," he said. "I hate it when someone dies from drug use..."
A woman several feet away from him shouted, "Yeah, and I hate when they break into my house."
When Dr. Rich attempted to keep speaking, one crowd member, Mark Brisk, got in his face. "You're done. You said what you had to say, now go back to Rhode Island. Believe me, we're all set here in Westport. Go back to Providence," Brisk said.
Westport would have been the fifth Massachusetts municipality to enact an NEP, and it could have used it. Some 43% of all AIDS cases there are injection drug use-related.