A New York City anti-drug organization, concerned over the spread of AIDS by needle-sharing intravenous drug users, wants to provide free needles for junkies.

It's not the most brilliant idea to come down the pike, but it's a lot brighter than the one Mayor Ed Koch has come up with. The mayor's idea? Bust the people who distribute the free needles. "We will not allow people to violate the law with impunity," he said.

Sale or possession of hypodermic needles without a prescription is illegal in New York -- and for a good reason: the overwhelming purpose of nonprescription needles is for the injection of illicit drugs. But if drug abuse is a serious problem, the spread of the deadly AIDS virus is a worse one. Koch's threat seems to focus on the lesser of grave evils.

It doesn't follow that I have much confidence in the needle-distributing proposal of the Brooklyn-based group called ADAPT (the Association for Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment). I have argued against the establishment of birth-control clinics in high schools on the ground of mixed messages. It seemed to me that school authorities cannot effectively caution children against premature sex while at the same time providing them the means of avoiding the consequences of sex. It's the dilemma of "Don't, but if you do . . ."

My misgivings concerning the ADAPT program have nothing to do with mixed messages. I doubt that non-junkies will be enticed into shooting up because the free-needle program seems to condone drug abuse. But I also doubt that needle sharing, the major means by which AIDS is spread among drug abusers (and by them into the non-addict heterosexual community), has much to do with the unaffordability of needles. My pessimism stems from several factors:

Needle-sharing appears to be a ritual among junkies: a counterpart of joint-passing among marijuana users.

Addicts who can afford the price of heroin can also afford to buy their own needles.

The brand-new needles ADAPT would distribute can be shared with the same deadly risk that exists now.

Presumably, most addicts know by now that simple household bleach is an effective sterilizing agent. My assumption is that needle-sharing is a risk knowingly undertaken.

Still, I have to say that the ADAPT proposal makes more sense than many I've heard, including one West Coast proposal to educate junkies in the "proper" methods of drug abuse.

ADAPT would distribute its needles only on an exchange basis. You would have to turn in an old needle in order to receive a new one.

Would this reduce the risk of AIDS transmission? Marginally, perhaps. Would it add to the dangers contemplated by the law Koch says he is determined to enforce? I doubt it.

If I am right, then the ADAPT program might accomplish some good. The need to do something is obvious. There are an estimated 200,000 intravenous drug users in New York City, according to the city Health Department. Some 60 percent of them are believed to carry the AIDS virus.

"We know that the intravenous drug use population is the most difficult of all to {persuade to} modify risk behavior," University of Minnesota ethicist Arthur Kaplan told the Associated Press. "We also know there have been very few programs that have been effective with those groups, either in terms of reforming their IV drug abuse or in terms of getting them to pay attention to safe sex practices."

Thus, he said, he might favor a small clean-needle program as an experiment to see to what extent it might work.

That makes sense to me. Still, I have my doubts. I cannot imagine how ADAPT representatives would manage to be on the scene when a junkie made his drug purchase, and I cannot imagine the junkie with a newly bought supply of heroin waiting patiently for ADAPT to show up with his fresh needle.

Irma Strantz, administrator of the Los Angeles County drug abuse program, may have a better idea. Distribute free bottles of bleach and instructions on its use for sterilizing needles.

That might not do much good either, but at least there's no law against the possession and distribution of Clorox.