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House panel rejects needle-exchange plan


Legislation to create a needle-exchange pilot program in Baltimore as a way to prevent the spread of AIDS among intravenous drug users was narrowly rejected yesterday by a state House panel.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 13 to 11 against the proposal, which Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and other supporters modeled after successful programs in U.S. and European cities.

Most committee members said they were uncomfortable with the idea of allowing intravenous drug users to turn in dirty hypodermic syringes in exchange for clean ones.

The panel's vote means the proposal is dead for the second time in two years. Last year the measure failed in another House committee.

Opponents said that allowing such a program would amount to the state encouraging drug use. The proposal "frightens me" said Del. Mary Louise Preis, D-Harford. "It's just not going to work," said Del. E. Farrell Maddox, D-Baltimore County.

Supporters of the idea countered that IV drug use is one of the most common ways to spread the AIDS virus.

And they said needle exchanges have proved effective among the seven states and eight foreign countries that have initiated programs.

A Yale University study found that the New Haven needle exchange program reduced HIV infections by one-third without evidence of increased drug use.

One in seven of the drug users who took part in needle exchange ended up entering treatment programs, the study found.

"There are several places where it's working and working well," argued Del. Kenneth Montague Jr., D-Baltimore. "The program does work."

"This is going to do a lot to help a lot of people," Del. Frank D. Boston Jr., D-Baltimore, told committee members.

Needle exchange also had the backing of state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini, although Gov. William Donald Schaefer opposed it, convinced that such a program would add to the city's drug problem.

The three-year pilot would have cost $50,000 in city funds and donations. The proposal called for serving as many as 700 addicts, who would have been offered anti-drug and AIDS counseling in addition to clean needles. The city Health Department was to supervise and evaluate the program.

The proposed program required approval by the General Assembly because an exemption is needed from the state's drug paraphernalia law, which prohibits unauthorized ownership of hypodermic syringes.

One-third of AIDS cases in the United States stem from intravenous drug use, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health estimates that 25 percent of the city's 40,000 intravenous drug users test positive for the virus that causes AIDS and that four to five new cases of HIV infection occur each day, the school said.

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