P.G. Needle Exchange Plan Wins Vote
By Robert E. Pierre
Numerous federally funded studies have shown that needle exchange programs nationwide have helped reduce new HIV infections by 20 percent or more by making it less likely that drug users will reuse contaminated needles. But critics have charged that the programs -- more than 100 nationwide -- send the wrong message and amount to a backdoor sanctioning of illegal drug use.
Prince George's would be the first suburban county in the Washington area to institute such a program. Up to now, needle exchanges have been limited to the District and Baltimore. From 1986 to 1996, the number of new AIDS cases diagnosed each year in Prince George's rose from 61 to 296. During the same period, the percentage of those cases attributed to intravenous drug use and the sharing of needles doubled to more than 26 percent of the total cases, officials said.
"This is a bill that will save lives," said Del. Pauline H. Menes (D-Prince George's), the bill's primary sponsor.
Needle exchange programs remain controversial in city halls and state legislatures across the country and on Capitol Hill. The Clinton administration has not allowed local governments to use federal funding for needle exchange programs, arguing that although research has shown that those programs can reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS, there is not adequate research showing that they do not encourage drug use.
"It sends a terrible message to every young person in the state," said Del. John S. Morgan (R-Prince George's/Howard), who opposes the program. "We shouldn't be subsidizing heroin addiction. That's what this really is. I don't want my tax money used for this."
The District first tried its needle exchange program in 1992, and the program was rejuvenated last year with $200,000 in city funds. Baltimore has handed out free needles to drug users for four years and experienced a 20 percent decline in new HIV infections while cases in surrounding counties increased by 1 percent.
Two weeks ago, Maryland senators killed a proposal to permit needle exchanges to occur throughout the state, not just in Baltimore. But a House bill expanding the program to Prince George's County alone won preliminary approval from the House of Delegates yesterday, after all but one of the county's 21 delegates rallied to support the program, provided it was coupled with enhanced drug treatment programs.
Should the measure be formally adopted by the House today, the proposal would go to the state Senate. Because six of the eight Prince George's senators back the idea, a bill affecting only Prince George's customarily would win approval from the full Senate. State legislators traditionally have deferred to the wishes of local lawmakers on legislation that affects no other county.
Even with state approval, it still would be up to the County Council and County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) to decide whether to implement a needle exchange program and when to do it. Curry has not taken a position on the matter, but the County Council and Prince George's Health Officer Art Thatcher already have expressed their support for a needle exchange.
"It makes sense for us to try to prevent the spread of disease and illness," said Prince George's County Council member Stephen J. Del Giudice (D-Hyattsville), who supports the measure.
Currently, the county has 375 patients in methadone treatment for drug abuse problems. Thatcher said that for a needle exchange program to be effective, the county would have to beef up the number of treatment slots. State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) said he would gladly approach the governor about providing some state aid for such a program.
"There is a fair amount of largess in the state budget," said Pinsky, a key supporter.
State lawmakers must approve the program because needles are considered drug paraphernalia under Maryland law, and people caught carrying them are subject to arrest. In Baltimore, people identified as being registered for the program are not subject to arrest if they are caught with a needle. But police said they are not immune to prosecution or arrest if police catch them with illegal drugs.
"Without this bill, anybody caught with needles would be arrested," Menes said.
Despite the overwhelming support of state lawmakers in Prince George's, Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah (D-Prince George's) conceded that the idea may not sit well with some residents in the affluent African American community.
"This is a very difficult issue to talk about," she said. "Successful suburban neighborhoods don't have these kinds of problems. . . . But of course we do. Actually admitting that we have a problem is the first step."
Staff writer Barbara Vobejda contributed to this report.
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