THERE'S A strong case to be made against needle exchange programs in which intravenous drug users can exchange a used needle for a clean one. After all, government has a clear interest in promoting lawful behavior, and an equally strong interest in not making such behavior easier or safer to indulge in. But in the case of needle exchange programs, the dangers of not providing addicts with clean needles are too overwhelming to ignore.
Now, with three years of experience, city officials have the evidence to back up their case that a carefully controlled needle exchange program can dramatically slow the rate of HIV infection, while also giving addicts a chance to enter treatment. The General Assembly should renew this program, but it need not grant it permanent life. A sunset provision, giving the program several years to run, would allow lawmakers a chance to review its efficacy again -- and provide a means of holding it accountable for bottom-line results.
But for now, blood-borne diseases like AIDS and hepatitis are imposing huge burdens on society and on government. From health care costs to the costs of caring for children orphaned by AIDS to the human toll these diseases take on families and neighborhoods, there are plenty of urgent reasons to try to slow their spread.
One striking result of the city's program is that the HIV infection rate among drug users in Baltimore County is now higher than in the city. The city has demonstrated that these programs can be run efficiently and effectively. Other jurisdictions that want to make similar efforts should get a sympathetic hearing from the legislature -- along with equally strong requirements for bottom-line results.
Pub Date: 2/08/97