Panel Says Government Should Drop Opposition to Needle Exchange
WASHINGTON (AP) _ A federal advisory panel on AIDS says the government should drop its opposition to needle exchange programs that let drug addicts swap used syringes for clean ones.
The National Commission on AIDS said Tuesday that the government should be doing more to combat AIDS and drug abuse in tandem because the twin epidemics are inextricably linked.
And it faulted the Bush administration for a ″myopic criminal justice approach″ to drug abuse that emphasizes punishment over treatment.
The commission said a third of all recent AIDS cases are related to intravenous drug use, yet federal agencies ″have barely recognized the linkages.″
″The failure to acknowledge this - the obvious - is bewildering and tragic,″ the commission said in its report, ″The Twin Epidemics of Substance Use and HIV.″ HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.
The panel said programs that link needle exchange and distribution of bleach to kill the AIDS virus with drug treatment ″have demonstrated the ability to get substance users to change injection practices.″
″More significantly, these programs, rather than encouraging substance use, lead substantial numbers of substance users to seek treatment,″ it said.
It cited as an example a needle exchange program in Tacoma, Wash., that became the largest source of drug treatment referrals in Pierce County.
The panel advocated scrapping laws that restrict the sale and possession of syringes and other injection materials. Currently, 11 states and the District of Columbia require prescriptions to obtain needles.
″The present laws restricting sterile injection equipment do not prevent drug abuse but do increase HIV transmission,″ said Don Des Jarlais, a member of the commission. ″These laws are obsolete and dangerous to the public health.″
The Bush administration opposes needle exchange programs because it believes they can be viewed as sanctioning drug abuse. John Gibbons, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said federal law prohibits the department from spending money on any such program.
National Drug Policy Director Bob Martinez said the commission’s report and other studies on needle-exchange programs ″fail to provide clear scientific evidence that such programs reduce risk-taking behavior.″
The commission was particularly critical of Martinez’s office, which it said virtually ignores the link between AIDS and drug abuse.
″Instead of responding to these epidemics with public health and treatment measures to cope with both, the federal government’s primary response has been imprisonment and increased jail sentences, often ignoring drug-HIV relationships,″ the report said.
It said the ″dire results″ are evident in statistics linking the two problems. About 32 percent of all adult and adolescent AIDS cases are related to IV drug use and 71 percent of all female AIDS cases are linked directly or indirectly to IV drug use.
The commission recommended expanding drug abuse treatment efforts, developing more programs that fight AIDS and drug abuse in tandem and expanding research on the link between the two problems.
It also called for more government and private efforts to fight social problems such as poverty, homelessness and lack of medical care that can promote drug use.
Martinez said the commission’s report distorts the government’s position on drug treatment and that Congress has failed to provide all the money the Bush administration sought for treatment.
Gibbons said the Bush administration supports the development of community- based programs to reach out to drug abusers and AIDS victims and to get them into treatment.
The 15-member commission, made up of House, Senate and White House appointees, was created to advise Congress and the president on AIDS policy.
The 11 states that require a prescription to obtain needles are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.