AP/Google.com Examines Debate Over Needle-Exchange Programs in Bexar County, Texas
The AP/Google.com on Tuesday examined a debate in Bexar County, Texas, over whether needle-exchange programs should be legalized to help curb the spread of HIV. Currently, anyone in possession of drug paraphernalia can be prosecuted, regardless of their intentions.
About one year ago, the state Legislature authorized Bexar County to establish a pilot needle-exchange program. State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D) said lawmakers hoped to use the pilot program to consider passing a statewide program during the 2009 legislative session. However, District Attorney Susan Reed in August 2007 said anyone in possession of drug paraphernalia would be breaking the law. State Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) earlier this year backed Reed, saying people who possess drug paraphernalia could be prosecuted because the law does not specifically exempt them (White, AP/Google.com, 7/22). Abbott's opinion meant that Bexar County officials did not move forward with the planned needle-exchange program, which would have been the first in Texas (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/6).
Bill Day -- who co-founded the Bexar Harm Reduction Coalition and who was charged with possession of needles while distributing them to injection drug users in San Antonio -- said, "I am really angry. Every day we're not out here, someone is getting HIV." Day said that in the six months before he stopped distributing needles, he would get back more than 10,000 used needles monthly from IDUs. He added that if he is able to return to distributing needles, it will take months before he is able to regain the trust of IDUs.
Richard Wolitski, acting director of CDC's Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, said three major reviews of needle-exchange programs have shown that they "decrease HIV transmission and do not increase the use of illegal drugs." Wolitski added that the programs serve as ways for IDUs to enter treatment programs.
However, David Murray, chief scientist for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said recent research indicates that the programs do not reduce injection drug use. "When it comes to the distribution of needles, we know that it carries an enablement of continued drug use," Murray said, adding, "And we fear, the evidence is strong, that it does not succeed in its effort to control the contagion" of disease. In addition, Murray said needle-exchange programs do not address the central issues of the HIV/AIDS problem, which include high-risk behavior associated with drug use, such as sexually transmitted infections and multiple sexual partners. Murray said that funding treatment programs is a better alternative to curbing injection drug use.
Reed said that the cases against Day and two associates cited with him are on hold until the Legislature meets next year. McClendon, whose amendment created the pilot program, said it was never lawmakers' intention to subject anyone to prosecution. "To me it seems quite shortsighted that our state lags so far behind in this important concept of preventing such diseases," McClendon added (AP/Google.com, 7/22).