A controversial program in which drug addicts will be able to exchange used needles for clean ones began in New York City yesterday under the auspices of the City's Health Department. The experiment is aimed at slowing the spread of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) among intravenous drug users.
In the program, 400 addicts, who were unable to secure placement in methadone clinics, will be able to volunteer for the experiment. Half of the group, divided at random, will receive counseling and the chance to exchange their needles, while the other half will receive only drug and AIDS counseling.
Researchers will later try to determine whether those who did not receive needles have a higher rate of AIDS infection than those who did receive them.
The most vocal opposition to the program has come from black and Hispanic communities.
The City Council's Black and Hispanic Caucus has denounced giving needles to addicts as ``beyond human reason and common sense'' at a time when the drug war is killing both citizens and police officers. These leaders deplore what they see as racist attitudes in allowing the program, saying it will encourage drug use among minority youths.
``We fight very hard to teach our young people that drug-use is immoral,'' says Debra Fraser-Howze, executive director of the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS. ``Now you have the government sanctioning drug use. Who is going to bear the brunt of this experiment?''
But Yolanda Serrano, executive director of ADAPT (Association for Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment), says that the black and Hispanic communities oppose the plan without proposing anything in its place. She says without adequate drug-treatment programs, the needle exchange is at least a step in combating the problem.
Patricia Johnson, a former addict who works for ADAPT, says that ``hopefully with this needle exchange, we'll be able to reach more people for treatment.''
The New York City Health Commissioner, Stephen Joseph, points out that AIDS, which is often spread by the needles of intravenous drug users, is having a devastating effect on minority communities.
There are an estimated 200,000 heroin addicts in the city, most of them black and Hispanic. He estimates that more than half of these addicts are infected with the AIDS virus. And they are in turn infecting their sex partners and unborn children.
Mark Parrino, president of the Northeast Regional Methadone Treatment Coalition, says there is a ``kind of sad quality'' to the program. No one, he says, likes the idea of it. But in the absence of enough treatment programs, and considering the community opposition to placing such programs in their neighborhoods when they are proposed, he can understand trying it.
``I'm apprehensive,'' says Mr. Parrino. ``My feeling is perhaps we've not done all we can to help the IV drug user. I'd much rather see better quality services.''
His experience with drug addicts makes him wonder if such a program will have an impact. But, he adds, recent studies show that IV drug users are educable, and are afraid of AIDS. If a needle exchange program can engage addicts and educate them, he says, then it will be worthwhile.
Pamela Hartman contributed to this report.