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Needle Exchanges Do Little to Stop AIDS, Drug Office Says With PM-Needle Programs-List

July 11, 1992

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Giving clean needles to drug addicts encourages drug use and doesn’t significantly slow the spread of AIDS, the head of the government’s anti-drug programs says.

″Our gains against drug use have been hard-won, and this is no time to jeopardize them by instituting needle exchange programs,″ said Bob Martinez, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

″Distributing needles facilitates drug use and undercuts the credibility of society’s message that using drugs is illegal and morally wrong,″ Martinez said.

Advocates of needle exchange disputed his statement, saying the programs save the government millions of dollars a day in the cost of caring for people who otherwise might be infected by the AIDS virus. The virus often is spread among drug users sharing needles.

″We postpone a public medical debt of $6.5 million or more every day we operate,″ said Dave Purchase, director of the needle exchange program in Tacoma, Wash.

President Bush, meanwhile, signed legislation Friday that continues a ban on using federal money to provide free needles for drug addicts.

″Distributing free needles to drug users only encourages more drug use,″ the president said in a statement issued at his Kennebunkport, Maine, vacation home.

Five states and the District of Columbia have programs that allow addicts to exchange dirty needles for clean ones. Legislation is pending in four other states. In seven states, AIDS activist groups fund or operate exchange programs.

In a policy statement released this week, Martinez said he studied existing exchange programs and found no conclusive evidence that exchange programs reduce the spread of AIDS. He said more energy should be put into alternatives such as treatment and outreach programs.

Martinez did not rule out future federal funding for needle exchanges, ″but we’re strongly urging that it’s not a good thing,″ said his spokeswoman, Alicia Gatewood.

″That’s a great shame,″ said the Rev. Margaret Reinfeld, director of education for the New York-based American Foundation for AIDS Research, the largest funder of needle exchange programs.

The foundation spends about $1.3 million on its needle exchange program in New York. Reinfeld estimated that about 500,000 are intravenous drug users in the city.

″We cannot write off a class of people because we don’t like their behavior,″ she said. ″Mr. Martinez is making decisions based solely on fears. The facts simply do not support his case.″

Martinez cited a 1991 study in New Haven, Conn., that found decreases in needle sharing among intravenous drug users and in transmission of the AIDS virus after the city began a needle exchange program.

That study was flawed, Martinez said, because it didn’t differentiate between drug users who exchanged a needle only once and those who exchanged needles more frequently. The same study found 61 percent of addicts who contacted the program indicated they never shared needles, he said.

Elaine O’Keefe, director of the New Haven program, was not available for comment Friday. But Purchase said Martinez misconstrued the research.

″He should rely more on science, medical fact and truth than he does on a false belief system that’s politically motivated,″ Purchase said.

The Tacoma program has registered 80 percent effectiveness in stopping transmission of the AIDS virus and other blood-borne diseases, such as hepatitis, Purchase said.

The rate of AIDS infection among Tacoma’s intravenous drug users has remained at 3 percent, Purchase added.

″If you look at cities where there’s no prevention effort ... in some cities it’s quadrupled in a year’s time.″

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