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The Demonization of Needle Exchange Programs

The social controversiality of harm reduction being emphasized over the arguably simplistic method of strict criminalization in regard to drug use should be quite alarming to those who care about the wellbeing of drug addicts.

Syringe services programs (SSPs) work to provide injecting drug users with clean, hypodermic needles so as to curb the spread of HIV and other diseases. These programs, often known by different names such as “needle exchange programs” or “syringe-exchange programs”, were labeled an “urgent public health need” by the American Medical Association in June of 1997, and the CDC claims that SSPs are “an effective component of a comprehensive, integrated approach to HIV prevention”.

Despite the emphatic praise that these programs have received from the organizations I referenced as well scores upon scores of medical professionals and recovering addicts, many remain harshly critical of SSPs. From The Heritage Foundation to the Catholic Church, many in places of influence have opposed these potentially life-saving community efforts.

In a 1999 attempt to block Washington, DC from funding a needle exchange program, former Georgia congressman Bob Barr warned that this would promote and encourage the use of drugs, stating that “If you give people the means to do something and encourage them to do it, well for heaven’s sake, no surprise, they will do it”.

This sentiment is plainly ignorant. There is no credible evidence that these programs lead to a rise in the use of injected drugs, and it’s hard to see why the even would. Many who hold this sort of thinking have been led astray by their own hatred towards drugs and drug users. They refuse to give the concept of SSPs any rational thought because they can’t get past their own preconceived ideas of “morality”.

Even though SSPs have (for the most part) been able to legally operate in the US, numerous SSPs have faced troubles at the local level. When the federal law, the state law, and the police exercising of the law all differ, there are bound to be serious problems and complications. This issue is too important to be treated with such disorganization.

Many police officers hold negative attitudes and prejudices toward drug users, and unjust syringe confiscation has occurred. According to a survey published by the Society for the Study of Addiction, 43% of syringe exchange programs reported harassment of clients at least once each month. This is a troubling statistic for a country in which SSPs are supposed to be allowed to operate legally. Back in 2005, a study found a decrease in black Philadelphians using the city’s needle exchange program following an anti-drug operation that was more than twice the decrease of white Philadelphians using the city’s needle exchange program. This presents, to me, a clear racial bias.

This is a cost-effective and internationally-successful method of disease prevention. We can not afford to cling to the ignorance and prejudice of the past, and we must remain sensible in this national dialogue. Don’t just give in to the anti-drug hysteria that has plagued our nation; understand the facts, and consider an evidence-based opinion.

Ezra Kronfeld is an independent writer and journalist. 

 

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