NEEDLE EXCHANGE: San Diego Group Renews Efforts
In light of recently signed legislation authorizing local governments to legalize needle exchanges, San Diego's Alliance Healthcare Foundation is renewing its campaign to establish a county-wide exchange program, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. The not-for-profit alliance is spending $340,000 to launch a new advertising campaign and to lobby public officials. A report from the county's Division of Hazardous Materials detailing dozens of incidents where "used, potentially infectious needles and syringes were found on the street, in trash cans, restrooms, vacant buildings and on beaches," prompted the focus of the ads, which feature a child reaching for a baseball under a bush but nearly picking up a dirty needle. AHF director Ruth Riedel said, "We want to reach parents who may not think there's much of a problem with discarded dirty needles on the streets," arguing that an exchange program would encourage drug users to save dirty needles for trade. According to Riedel, about 20% of the county's 10,100 reported AIDS cases result from direct or indirect contact with dirty needles. But local leaders have repeatedly rejected such plans and the "political climate remains inhospitable to the idea," the Union-Tribune reports. San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said, "No, no, no. A thousand times, no. It's wrong for government to say it's okay to use illegal drugs as long as you use a clean needle. Clean needle exchanges send the wrong message to our kids." Added Supervisor Ron Roberts, "There just isn't the enthusiasm here for passing out needles." As part of their campaign, Riedel and AHF also have convinced the California Endowment to shell out $1.8 million over two years to establish a "harm reduction" plan that aims to "entice drug users to kick the habit." She said, "[W]e're not going away. We're going to continue to campaign on this issue until we have a solution in this community. Why should we be one of the few major metropolitan areas in the state without a sanctioned program?"
Glimmer of Hope?
Although County Health Director Robert Ross remains unconvinced of the success of needle exchange programs, he has agreed to "take a renewed look at the effect such programs have elsewhere," the Union-Tribune reports. "There's an impression in the HIV/AIDS advocacy community that clean needle exchange is a panacea, and that it's unethical to withhold this strategy. But I haven't seen any data that says the prevalence of HIV is any lower in communities that have needle exchange." Even so, he added, he would investigate "if intravenous drug use is perceptibly different" under exchange programs. "If they have a statistically significant lower trend line, compared to ours going up, that would seem to me to make a compelling case. But I don't know that the data is that clean," he said. Ross warned, however, that the lack of "political will" would make implementing a program very difficult, as it would most likely "be unwelcome in [county] neighborhoods." He explained, "San Diego has a fairly strong sense" that such things should "not [be] in my back yard" (Clark, 12/1).