Early last week, the Boston Herald precipitated a police crackdown on drug users in Boston Common and the Public Garden with sensational stories about shooting up in public by heroin users. By the end of the week, the Herald found itself having to report on the contradictory missions of police and public health as a client of a city-approved needle exchange program was arrested by police doing anti-drug sweeps in the areas identified by the newspaper.
The arrest of a needle exchange client was unprecedented, Public Health Commission executive director John Auerbach told the Herald. "We've worked very hard over the last decade to make sure we have good communications with police to minimize the likelihood that would be a problem. Over that entire period, I can't remember a single instance where someone was getting monitored or getting arrested just as they were getting out of the van," he said. "I think this is a coincidence," he added hopefully.
Coincidence or not, that is precisely what happened to Joanna Leahy, 31, last Thursday. Just moments after stopping by the unmarked silver city van operated by the AHOPE Needle Exchange Program and picking up a brown bag with syringes and alcohol swabs, Leahy and another person, Rafeal Rodriguez, were arrested on heroin possession charges by Boston transit police.
According to the Herald, other people approached the van to exchange syringes during the course of the day, but because of the heavy police presence unleashed by the paper's exposé at least one client "broke into sprint" after scoring his needles to get rapidly away from the scene.
Numerous studies have found needle exchange programs to be effective in reducing the spread of HIV, Hep C, and other blood-borne diseases. Boston's AHOPE program has 2,000 clients, which it provides with access to detox programs, testing, and medical care, as well as syringes, condoms, alcohol wipes, and information. The program also provides membership cards, which will protect clients from arrest for syringe possession, but as Leahy's case makes clear, they do not protect clients from being arrested for drug possession.