Rod Driver

Column from the Narragansett Times, March 17, 1989

Taking steps to control AIDS


Rhode Island is still in the early stages of the drug-related AIDS epidemic. Only about 10 percent of intravenous drug users in our state are infected with HIV - the virus which causes AIDS.

Yet already intravenous drug users comprise 35 percent of Rhode Island's 235 reported AIDS patients.

About 15 Rhode Island children under the age of three are known to be "HIV positive." And almost all of these were infected at birth by their mothers who were either intravenous drug users or who had acquired the virus from an intravenous drug user.

The prospect is bleak. If the AIDS virus spreads among Rhode Island's drug addicts as it has in New York and New Jersey, in a few years Rhode Island could have a thousand AIDS victims among intravenous drug users alone.

Eleven years ago in New York City only about 10 percent of intravenous drug users were HIV positive. Today that figure has grown to around 80 percent as addicts share contaminated hypodermic needles.

In addition, the addict's sex partners and the babies of addicts or their partners often become infected.

In some cases, entire families have died or are dying of AIDS.

In an effort to limit the spread of AIDS, clean-needle programs have been established in several cities in Europe and North America. Sometimes government-funded and sometimes privately-funded, these programs encourage addicts to exchange contaminated needles for new ones, usually at no charge. A year ago U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop endorsed the idea of a pilot needle-exchange program to determine whether it could reduce the spread of AIDS in the United States. And just this month the new U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Louis Sullivan, added his endorsement to the idea.

One of the most promising exchange programs was started in Tacoma, Washington where HIV infection among drug users is still relatively low. David Purchase, who had worked in drug treatment for 19 years, bought clean needles at his own expense and began offering them on the streets of Tacoma in exchange for contaminated ones. His effort is now supported by the city.

But, far from offering clean needles in exchange for contaminated ones, Rhode Island actually has a law which bans even possession of hypodermic needles and syringes without a prescription.

In Rhode Island, a person found with a hypodermic needle or syringe can be sentenced to five years in prison. (The initial version of this statute was adopted as a weapon against drug addicts and dealers in 1974 -years before anyone had heard of AIDS.)

This law actually encourages addicts to share needles. Drug addicts feel that if only one person in a group actually carries a needle and syringe, the risk of arrest for the others is reduced. Thus the entire group shares that needle.

Rhode Island is one of only 12 states making possession of hypodermic needles and syringes a criminal offense. And the Judiciary Committee of the R.I. House of Representatives will soon consider a proposal to repeal this statute.

But it is not obvious that the effort will succeed. Legislatures tend to make new laws and increase penalties rather than to repeal outdated laws - especially laws related to drug use.

Ideally we could simply explain the dangers to all drug users, and they would stop using drugs. But anyone who is addicted to nicotine should realize how futile that is.

Drug users need help to break their addiction.

In Rhode Island drug treatment facilities are overloaded. Only half of the more than 4,000 addicts who want help are presently in treatment programs. The others may wait a year for an opening; and not all addicts want treatment. (Those who already test HIV positive get priority for admission in Rhode Island.)

If we recognize these realities, then telling an addict that he or she may not possess a clean needle and syringe because drugs are illegal makes no sense.

The bill before the R.I. General Assembly would not establish a needle-exchange program, but it would make such a program legal if a private person or agency wanted to sponsor one.

No one claims this will be a panacea. But it should help. We owe it to all segments of our society, and especially the unborn children, to take steps to protect them from AIDS. And it is in everyone's interest to try to control the multi-million dollar cost of treating thousands of future AIDS victims.