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Harm Reduction: San Antonio Police Arrest Needle Exchangers, DA Ups the Ante

Bill Day, 73, and the Bexar Area Harm Reduction Coalition have been doing unsanctioned needle exchanges in poor San Antonio neighborhoods for years, but this week, Day and two of the group's board members were arrested on drug paraphernalia possession charges as they handed out clean syringes. Now, the San Antonio Express-News reports, to add insult to injury, District Attorney Susan Reed has upped the charges from possession to distribution of paraphernalia, exposing Day and his comrades to a year in jail, as opposed to the maximum $500 fine for possession.
popular syringe exchange logo
Day and the coalition are fighting back. They have assembled a legal team that includes high-profile criminal defense attorney Gerald Goldstein and pro bono assistance from the prestigious Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld law firm.

"These are enormously decent, charitable people, and what's happening with them smacks of persecution," said Neel Lane, an attorney with Akin Gump who has filed a brief with the state attorney general's office on the group's behalf.

Last year, the Texas legislature passed a bill authorizing health officials to set up a pilot needle exchange program in Bexar County, which would be the first legal needle exchange in the Lone Star State. But DA Reed has stalled the program, declaring that the legislation authorizing it is faulty. An opinion from the state attorney general is pending.

In fact, Reed has been trying to derail the program since it was approved last summer. Last August, she told the Express-News that state drug laws trump the needle exchange legislation, a minority position even among prosecutors. She warned local health officials the law would not protect them.

"I'm telling them, and I'm telling the police chief, I don't think they have any kind of criminal immunity," Reed said. "That's the bottom line. It has nothing to do with whether they do it or don't do it -- other than if you do it you might find yourself in jail."

Reed opposed the needle exchange program, but by forcing the issue, she may have inadvertently contributed to resolving the program's legality once and for all.

A special thanks to Texas criminal justice blogger Scott Henson and his Grits for Breakfast blog for a heads-up on this one.

Harm Reduction: DC Quick to Move After Congress Lifts Needle Exchange Funding Ban

Officials from the District of Columbia announced Wednesday that the District government will invest $650,000 in needle exchange programs. The move comes less than two weeks after Congress passed an appropriations bill relaxing a decade-old ban on the District using even its money to fund such programs.
PreventionWorks at work (screen shot from recent '''slide show,'' June '07)
Mayor Adrian Fenty and several city council members made the announcement at a press conference at the headquarters of PreventionWorks!, a DC needle exchange program that had heretofore existed on only private funding. Now, it will get $300,000 in city funds. Public funding for needle exchange would help reduce the number of new HIV infections in the city, they said.

"This program goes to best practices to combat one of our greatest health problems," Fenty said at the news conference. Given the high prevalence of HIV in the District, "everyone should be concerned," he said. "HIV and AIDS are such well-known public health problems in the District of Columbia that people understand we have to have programs and services in the neighborhoods," the mayor said.

The rest of the $650,000 will go to fund additional needle exchange programs throughout the city, he said.

It is money well spent, said DC Councilmember David Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Health. "The cost of infection is immeasurably higher in terms of dollars and lives," he said.

If You Oppose Harm Reduction, You Support AIDS and Death

The Drug Czar's blog has been very concerned about harm reduction lately. They've taken the counterintuitive position of opposing efforts to save the lives of drug users, which seems like a strange choice. Now I understand why: they think harm reduction is the opposite of what it actually is.
These so-called "harm reduction" strategies are poor public policy because their underlying philosophy involves giving up on those who can successfully recover from drug addiction. []
This is wrong for a very simple reason: you cannot recover from addiction if you're dead. Harm reduction programs are not an alternative to treatment, rather they go hand in hand. Harm reduction keeps people healthy and alive, thereby creating opportunities for them to subsequently recover from addiction.

We could do nothing. That would be "giving up." We could ask drug addicts to either quit or die. That would be "giving up." Instead, harm reduction activists have taken to the streets and attacked this problem directly. They've studied the leading causes of death among drug users and created programs to reduce those casualties. That's the opposite of giving up.

Just pretend for a moment that you're cruel and you want drug users to die in large numbers. How would you go about it? Well, you would begin by eliminating regulated distribution so that users are forced to obtain unsafe products from criminals on the street. You would reduce access to clean needles in order to spread AIDS. You would enforce criminal sanctions against users so that they're afraid to seek help. And you would lobby aggressively against anyone who's studied the problem and proposed programs to reduce AIDS and overdoses.

Now I'm not saying the Drug Czar wants to kill people. I'm just saying he presides over a policy that is perfectly tailored to achieve that outcome. And he dares to suggest that the people out there working with addicts and saving lives are the ones who've given up.
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Press Release: PreventionWorks! Selects New Executive Director To Advance Agency As A HIV Continuum Of Care Service Provider

[Courtesy of PreventionWorks!] NEWS RELEASE: November 20, 2007 CONTACT: Beth Beck: [email protected], (202) 253-0397 PreventionWorks! Selects New Executive Director To Advance Agency As A HIV Continuum Of Care Service Provider November 20, 2007 – Washington, DC – PreventionWorks!, a non-profit community-based organization committed to addressing HIV/AIDS and related health issues among drug users, their families, friends and partners, announced today the appointment of its new Executive Director. Ken Vail, MPH, MA, has been selected to lead the agency, as it prepares to expand and enhance service delivery to the District’s most vulnerable populations. The appointment of Mr. Vail is the result of an official search that began after Paola Barahona, Founding Executive Director, announced her departure in August of this year. "After an exhaustive and detailed search, that included the efforts of an executive search firm, it became clear to the Board of Directors that we already had the best candidate for the job", said Beth Beck, Board President, Prevention Works!. “As the search moved forward, it was evident to the Board that Mr. Vail’s knowledge, skills, experience, and vision were directly in line with the growth the agency is experiencing in response to the continually shifting HIV/AIDS epidemic and we are very excited to have him aboard.” Mr. Vail was most recently the Interim Executive Director for PreventionWorks! and took over the operations of the agency in August. Before coming to PreventionWorks! he was the Director of Prevention for Community Health Action of Staten Island. Mr. Vail has more than 17 years of experience in the fields of public health, medical anthropology and direct service provision. He has a strong background in non-profit program planning and management, staff development, grant writing and program evaluation. Mr. Vail also has extensive experience as an HIV prevention educator and is an expert in the theory and practice of harm reduction. “I am very excited and humbled to become the next Executive Director for PreventionWorks!” said Vail. “I have worked my whole life to serve populations most impacted by HIV disease and illness and I look forward to working with staff, volunteers, clients, and the Board of Directors to move the agency forward.” “As Executive Director, my initial focus will be to strengthen the organizational infrastructure to effectively position the agency as a comprehensive continuum of care service provider to best improve the health of DC’s drug using populations and most vulnerable residents.” Transition Guides, an executive firm specializing in non-profit agencies, and the Board of Directors at PreventionWorks, conducted the search for the executive director position.
Washington, DC
United States

Harm Reduction: New Jersey's First Legal Needle Exchange Is Open

The needle exchange program bill passed nearly a year ago by the New Jersey state legislature has borne its first fruit. A needle exchange program operated by the South Jersey AIDS Alliance in Atlantic City began operations Tuesday.
popular syringe exchange logo
Under the New Jersey law, up to a half-dozen municipalities can apply to operate needle exchange programs. Atlantic City has long clamored for such a program and is the first off the mark, but preparations for similar programs are underway in Camden, Newark, and Paterson.

Needle exchange programs are a proven means of reducing the spread of blood-borne diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.

According to a report from the Drug Policy Alliance's New Jersey head Roseanne Scotti, who was instrumental in guiding the legislation to passage, 20 people registered for the Atlantic City program on its first day of operation. The program runs out of the South Jersey AIDS Alliance drop-in center and is currently limited to four hours a day on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. The city plans to take the exchange program mobile, but it still working on gathering the money to pay for a van.

Needle Exchange Action May Be Imminent

Last spring at the National African American Drug Policy Coalition summit here in Washington, the question was asked of Donna Christian-Christensen (Congressional Delegate from Guam, the closest thing the territories have to US Representatives), a physician and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Health Braintrust, what the prospects were for repealing the ban on use of federal AIDS grant funds to support needle exchange. Her answer was, "We're going to give it a good try." I took that to mean "it's not going to happen this time." The issue has made some progress however, at least as it affects us here in the District of Columbia, where a particularly infamous part of the annual appropriations bill prevents DC from spending even its own locally-collected tax funds on needle exchange appears to be on its way to getting repealed, thanks to positive action by a House subcommittee that drafted the new appropriations bill. I know better than to take it as a given that repeal will make it all the way through. But it is looking pretty good, and at the PreventionWorks! anniversary party this evening -- attended by new PW executive director Ken Vail -- AIDS Action lobbyist Bill McColl informed the crowd that it could hit the floor within a few days. Earlier this year we reported that Hillary Clinton was noncommittal about lifting the ban during a videotaped exchange at a private forum with prominent AIDS activists. The exchange was fascinating; after several pointed back-and-forths with Housing Works executive director Charles King, Sen. Clinton directly acknowledged that it was political concerns only that accounted for her position (though the kinds of concerns that can't necessarily be dismissed offhand). Sen. Obama, by contrast, had stated his support for lifting the ban. This week Clinton took the plunge and made strong pro-needle exchange promises in a campaign statement on AIDS funding. What would ultimately happen with this in a Clinton presidency, or any Democratic presidency, is probably hard to predict -- politics is still politics. But the fact that the Democratic candidates are lining up to support the issue has McColl feeling cautiously optimistic that the Democratic Congress won't drop the ball on the DC language at least. And it's encouraging for all of us about the long-term. The federal needle exchange restriction came to a boil during the Clinton administration, when the findings needed to lift the ban -- needle exchange doesn't increase drug use, but does reduce the spread of HIV -- were made by the administration, but not acted on. Some advocates believe that if Donna Shalala had been on a certain Air Force One flight, instead of Barry McCaffrey, that it would have happened. It took a change in Congress to even get the issue back onto the radar screen; more may be needed to actually get the law changed. Still, let's keep our fingers crossed for the DC ban to be lifted, maybe even by the end of the year. Assuming that happens: Let's Do Heroin! (That was sarcasm, in case anyone didn't realize.)
Washington, DC
United States

Hillary Clinton Pledges Support for Needle Exchange

After hilariously claiming that she needed to see more evidence of its effectiveness, democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton seems to have found the answers she was looking for.* Her campaign has announced support for harm reduction, including needle exchange:
She also supports using U.S. funding to support proven harm reduction efforts - including needle exchange - to help hard-to-reach populations, and will continue to support new evidence-based prevention methods as additional scientific research helps us understand how to best address this epidemic. []

We've heard similar pledges from Obama and Edwards, and it's likely safe to assume other democratic candidates will toe the line on this one (possibly excluding drug war hall-of-famer Joe Biden).

It's nice to see Washington politicians getting it right on needle exchange. Of course, this is really about whether or not we want huge numbers of people to die from AIDS in the name of drug war politics. We needn't fall to our knees in gratitude when someone understands such an obvious humanitarian concern. Rather, we should be demanding answers from any candidate who hasn’t yet spoken out against the federal government's catastrophic ban on life-saving intervention programs.

*By "hilarious," I meant that the mountain of evidence showing that needle exchange saves lives is so huge that I couldn't imagine Hillary Clinton actually had time to read it.

(This blog post was published by's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

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John Edwards Supports Needle Exchange

As part his new proposed plan to combat AIDS, democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards is speaking out in favor of needle exchange:
"And I think we also ought to promote programs that prevent harm and specifically needle exchange, which I support. We ought to get rid of the federal ban on needle exchange." [NPR]

Drug war absolutists have long opposed needle exchange, despite overwhelming evidence that it prevents AIDS and saves lives. It is just amazing that the people in charge of protecting Americans from drugs support policies that spread AIDS and kill people.

Edwards deserves credit for calling out one of our nation's most ill-conceived drug policies. It's a no-brainer for sure, but at least he got it right.

And in the process, John, you may have stumbled upon a nifty device for drafting a superb drug policy platform for your campaign: simply check what the federal policy is on any drug issue and advocate the opposite. You will be correct every time.

Update: At the risk of further emboldening the hysterical Obama fans who freaked out over my last post, and irrationally implied that he's good on drug policy, it's only fair to add that Barack Obama has also spoken in favor of needle exchange. Hillary Clinton, who's otherwise sounded good on drug policy (for a front-runner, anyway) wants to see more proof that it works, which, at this point, is like demanding proof that the sun will rise tomorrow.

(This blog post was published by's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)
United States

Harm Reduction: Pennsylvania Moves to End Prescription Requirement for Buying Needles

Pennsylvania is one of the few states remaining that still require a prescription to buy a needle, but that could change soon. The Pennsylvania Pharmacy Board has submitted for public comment a proposed rule that would eliminate the prescription requirement.

The move is generally supported by Keystone State harm reduction organizations, who view it as a move that will help reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases among injection drug users.

The proposed rule would limit the number of needles one could purchase without a prescription to 30 at a time. Most other states have no limit on the number of needles that can be purchased. Syringes would remain stored in the prescription area of drug stores. People who wish to obtain a prescription to purchase needles (for insurance purposes) would still be able to do so.

The period for public comment will end September 25, after which the board will decide whether or not to move forward on the proposed rule.

Press Release: A Turning Point for Needle Exchange in D.C., With New Leadership and Influx of Public Funding PreventionWorks Prepares for Growth, Expansion

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 4, 2007 CONTACT: Ken Vail at 202-588-5580, A Turning Point for Needle Exchange in D.C. With New Leadership and Influx of Public Funding PreventionWorks Prepares for Growth, Expansion Nine years after its founding in 1998, PreventionWorks, Washington D.C.'s only needle exchange program, has announced the departure of its long-time and respected Executive Director, Paola Barahona, the first and only person to hold the position. In her nine years of service, Barahona has raised more than $3.5 million in private funding to support and sustain the work of PreventionWorks which, until this year, was prohibited by an act of Congress from receiving or utilizing public funding for its needle exchange services. PreventionWorks provides access to sterile syringes, offers tools and information for leading healthier lives, and provides access and referrals to drug treatment, medical and social services. Its services are client-focused, culturally appropriate, and community supported. All services are provided without judgment. James Millner, a nationally known healthcare communications consultant who served on the board of directors of PreventionWorks, including a term as board president, says, The coinciding departures of both Paola and me truly mark the beginning of a new era for PreventionWorks. We leave behind a respected organization with a solid and stable foundation from which it can grow and expand to meet the significant challenges ahead. But we cannot move forward without properly acknowledging the tireless efforts of Paola Barahona, without whom PreventionWorks and needle exchange entirely would likely not exist in our nations capital. She deserves the thanks and appreciation of this entire city. Under the leadership of PreventionWorks President, Beth Beck, a Regional Director for the American Cancer Society, the board of directors has established a Transition Committee to oversee a national search for a new Executive Director. Chaired by PreventionWorks board of directors member Naomi Long (Director of the Washington Metro office for the Drug Policy Alliance), the Committee includes Barbara Chinn of Whitman-Walker Clinic, Channing Wickham of the Washington AIDS Partnership, James Millner (Past President, PreventionWorks board of directors), Patsy Fleming (Whitman Walker Clinics National AIDS Policy Director) and Scott Sanders of High Noon Communications. The board of directors is working with Transition Guides, a consulting firm dedicated to sustaining and strengthening nonprofits through better managed leadership transitions, to ensure the stability of the unique services provided by PreventionWorks during and after the leadership transition. Mr. Kenneth Vail, MPH, MA, has been hired as Interim Executive Director to manage PreventionWorks during its search for permanent staff leadership. Mr. Vail has 17 years of experience establishing and leading syringe access programs in Santa Cruz, California, Cleveland, Ohio, San Francisco, California, and Staten Island, New York, and has worked in HIV outreach, prevention and education in Boston, Massachusetts, San Jose, California, and Temirtau, Kazakhstan. For nearly a decade, PreventionWorks has grown and strengthened into an organization that is today a critical part of the District of Columbias HIV prevention strategy. No longer a stop-gap or temporary solution to provide clean needles to drug users, PreventionWorks is transitioning into a full service HIV prevention and health advocacy group for drug users, their families, friends and partners. For further information about the transition or PreventionWorks, please contact Ken Vail at 202-588-5580.
Washington, DC
United States

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