Expansion of Needle Exchanges
This morning while driving to school, I heard a story on NPR's Morning Edition about needle exchanges. The big news was that Congress has voted to life a ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs, which have previously been funded solely by state governments and other local divisions. Needle exchange programs have been around for some time, and have the purpose of distributing clean needles to intravenous drug users, or users who shoot up drugs of any kind. This is to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis, which is easily spread by the use of dirty or shared needles.
My first thought when hearing this story was that it seemed like this was legitimizing drug use by addicts. However, Bill McColl of advocacy group AIDS Action sees it differently:
Bill McColl of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group AIDS Action says some are afraid federal backing conflicts with the zero-tolerance policy for drug use.
But he says he sees the vote to lift the ban as a vote for science.
"There are eight federal reports that show that syringe exchange will decrease HIV and Hepatitis," McColl says. "It doesn't increase substance abuse. You know, this is a real opportunity to do some serious outreach to a population that is often overlooked."
And the more I thought about it, the more I came to see this decision by Congress as a good one. First of all, many states already have needle-exchange programs. According to the article, there are over 200. And last year alone, according to the North American Syringe Exchange Network, more than 30 million needles were distributed last year. That is a huge amount of HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis cases that may have been prevented.
Second of all, drug users are going to shoot up whether they have a clean needle or not. And if they contract a disease from a used needle, then they are infected as well as continuing to spread that infection through their continuous drug use, while simultaneously taxing the system for health care and support. The needle exchange prevents this double whammy; drug users may still be using, but at least they don't contract and spread diseases as rapidly.
Perhaps most importantly, it seems like most, if not almost all, drug users were drawn into drugs not because of the opportunity to shoot up with a clean needle, but for other reasons. Peer pressure, depression, and the other classics will entice potential drug users more than dirty needles will prevent them, especially since many users don't know that they are using a dirty needle. An important point to mention as well is that this decision does not mean that funding will be provided for needle exchanges - it is just a possibility now, whereas it was banned before. And in a time when the cost of heath care is becoming an increasingly important issue, prevention of disease could lower it more than paying for some clean needles.