[HARMRED] Syringe exchange ban piece on The Atlantic's website

Mary Levin levinmb at gmail.com
Tue Mar 13 15:05:52 CDT 2012

 Full text below; online here:

 The War on Drug Users: Are Syringe Exchanges Immoral?

 MAR 13 2012, 10:01 AM ET

 JULIE TURKEWITZ <http://www.theatlantic.com/julie-turkewitz/> - Julie
Turkewitz <http://www.julieturkewitz.com/> is a New York-based freelance
journalist. She spent two years writing about AIDS and homelessness for Housing
Works <http://www.housingworks.org/>. Her work has appeared in *The
Baltimore Sun*, *The Atlanta Journal-Constitution*, and elsewhere.

*Despite the data, some still struggle with the the idea of helping drug
users inject, arguing that these programs encourage addiction.*

A syringe exchange program. *Gustau Nacarino/Reuters*

For nearly four decades, Elizabeth Owens injected heroin in shooting
New York City, handing over a bag of dope for the privilege to enter, and
then a dollar or two for a needle that had been used, perhaps dozens of
times, by other people.

Then, in 2008, a friend told her about a van on 149th Street that was
dispensing clean syringes in exchange for dirty ones. Owens went to check
it out, and her life changed. "I found people with resources, people that
were caring," she said. The staff at the program didn't just give her clean
syringes; they also told her who to contact to get help. She entered a
rehabilitation program, and hasn't used drugs in over two years.

Programs like these, called syringe exchanges, are internationally credited
with dramaticallyreducing HIV and hepatitis
infections<http://www.avert.org/needle-exchange.htm> among
injection drug users. They've also been proven to link addicted people to
save taxpayers millions of dollars in health care costs, and help keep
syringes off the streets, protecting both cops and kids.

Cindy G., 52, spent decades sharing needles with others, sharpening dull
ones on emery boards and taking them from diabetic friends.

But amid the ruckus of the most recent culture-war battles -- over Planned
Parenthood dollars<http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/02/who-is-behind-susan-g-komens-split-from-planned-parenthood/252327/>
Congress quietly passed an amendment that prohibits the use of federal
money for syringe exchanges. For 21 years, the United States had banned the
use of federal funds for these programs. AIDS activists spent two decades
fighting that ban, and in 2009, President Obama overturned it. Yet in a
matter of months a few social conservatives managed to reinstate it. How
did this happen?

In short: Politics. Despite the data, some still struggle with the idea of
helping drug users inject, arguing that these programs hurt society by
encouraging addiction and promoting a no-work, dependent-on-the system
lifestyle. Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY) is chair of the House
appropriations committee and played a key role in the decision to reinstate
the ban. "Chairman Rogers ... is concerned that needle exchange programs
only encourage drug addicts to remain addicted to drugs and perpetuate the
cycle of drug crime," Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman, explained.

But many advocates for syringe exchanges say that in allowing an outdated
moral agenda to trump science, politicians like Rogers are launching a
misguided attack on both drug users and taxpayers in general. Eight
federally-funded research reports have concluded that these programs reduce
HIV transmission without increasing the use of illicit drugs. In New York
City, the rate of new HIV infections among drug users fell 80
percent<http://www.lacityaids.org/syringe_exchange.htm> after
the city implemented syringe exchanges. And the cost savings from such
programs have been enormous: A clean syringe costs about
according to Human Rights Watch. The average lifetime cost for treating
HIV, in contrast, is around $300,000.

What's more, advocates reject the idea that syringe exchanges are immoral.
The vast majority of syringe exchange programs are not just anonymous
offices where drug users pick up equipment. These programs host support
clubs, link people to housing and health care, and serve as meeting spaces
for individuals to learn about their rights. For drug users accustomed to
daily rejection by family, friends, and society, syringe exchanges are
often the last outposts of acceptance, the only places where they can
recover their dignity.

"This is where we learn to stop seeing ourselves as just a bunch of drug
users," said Cindy G., 52, who spent decades sharing needles with others,
sharpening dull ones on emery boards and taking them from diabetic friends.
She now participates in the exchange program run by VOCAL-New York, where
she helped start a woman's support group. "What's insane is that there are
so many people that can't or won't be able to use them."

Indeed, many current and former drug users say that the saddest element of
the funding ban is the lost opportunity for people to create new,
productive lives. Take Owens: She was once "just a body walking around,"
sleeping in Washington Square Park, shooting up in apartments that reeked
of dried blood and burning metal, watching one friend after another die of
AIDS and overdose. Now, she's a peer educator with a New York City-based
non-profit, and for a $100 weekly stipend she traverses the city,
convincing drug users to seek help.

"I found a job that I can do that I know is helping the community," she
said. "Imagine how many people who are out there that want to change, but
don't know where to start."

Human Rights Watch <http://www.hrw.org/> estimates that just three percent
of the estimated one billion illicit drug injections that take place each
year are covered by syringe programs. Thanks to spending cuts, nearly all
of the nation's approximately 220 syringe exchanges are crying for money;
and the federal funding ban will only exacerbate the situation. The ban
will hit hardest in the Southeast, where there are the "least number of
programs and the greatest need for them," according to Dr. Don Des
a leading researcher on drug-user issues.

Internationally, nearly all high-income countries support exchanges on a
national scale. Even conservative politicians in other nations (think Margaret
Britain) have thrown their weight behind them. Now, the challenge for
syringe exchange advocates in the U.S. will be convincing the last holdouts
-- like Rogers -- that supporting these programs doesn't just make sound
economic sense -- but is the ethical move to make.

"It simply doesn't make sense to turn our backs on approaches that are
working so well," said Chris Collins, vice president and director of public
policy at amfAR <http://www.amfar.org/>, a research organization dedicated
to ending AIDS. "If the moral agenda is advancing public health, taking
needles off the street, protecting police officers, and helping people get
the care they need, then syringe exchange programs make sense."

Daniel Raymond
Policy Director
Harm Reduction Coalition
22 W. 27th Street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10001
(212) 213-6376 x29
Fax: (212) 213-6582
raymond at harmreduction.org

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

William Butler Yeats
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