Facts and politics
Fact: Forty percent of the total number of the reported AIDS cases in the country have been linked to injection drug use. In Sacramento, nearly one third of new AIDS cases reported last year were thought to be associated with IV drug use. And AIDS kills people.
Fact: An overwhelming number of studies find that needle exchange programs—which distribute clean syringes to drug users to reduce the sharing of HIV-contaminated needles—are significantly effective at reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Public health experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office and the National Institutes of Health have all churned out studies that reinforce this truth.
Fact: Like other counties in California, Sacramento could legitimize a needle exchange program thanks to AB 136, a law that allows counties to operate an exchange program legally as long as its public health officer issues a declaration every 14 days, labeling the risk of spreading disease a public health emergency. About 25 California counties now operate needle exchange programs, 14 of those do it legally based on AB 136.
Fact: The recent arrest and conviction of local needle exchange volunteer Lynell Clancy—who helped the Sacramento Area Needle Exchange (SANE) replace about 500,000 needles in the region last year—has put a renewed spotlight on what had been an underground-by-choice operation since 1994. Instead of being praised for saving lives, Clancy was placed on a three-year probation and SANE volunteers are now forced to fear that the same thing could happen to them.
Politics: Politicians from both parties, locally and nationally, almost uniformly fear being perceived at re-election time as “weak on drugs.” So despite overwhelming public health benefits, most politicians simply won’t support needle exchange programs, saying it is “immoral” and “sends the wrong message” to the nation’s youth.
But needle exchange is not about promoting drug use, it’s about stemming the tide of an enormous public health crisis, saving the lives of your neighbors, or possibly your children.
Prior to the Clancy conviction, SANE had not officially asked Sacramento supervisors for permission to run their exchange program. They’d counted the votes (only one supervisor, Illa Collin, favors the program) and decided that going public would do more harm than good. But the Clancy conviction puts SANE’s activities into the limelight and gives the group no choice but to take the matter public.
When SANE goes before the board this fall urging supervisors to approve a local needle exchange effort under the provisions of AB 136, let’s hope our leaders make their decision based on facts … not politics.