The whole idea makes the squeamish wince and the tough-on-crime crowd apoplectic. But giving clean needles to drug addicts in exchange for dirty ones makes a lot of sense. It’s not an issue of encouraging illegal behavior. Addicts don’t need encouragement, they just need to score, which they will, one way or another.
Rather, it’s an issue of public safety and public health. A proposal in the state Legislature would set up a five-year pilot, funded by grants, in Miami-Dade County. The program would provide clean needles and hypodermic syringes for free in exchange for used ones. Injection-drug users would have to give one to get one. At the same time, program managers would work to coax them into rehab, help with a job search and offer counseling.
Concerned lawmakers should look at results elsewhere. More than half the states in the country have needle-exchange programs. San Francisco has had such a program for 25 years. A local study conducted by students from the University of Miami found that Miami had eight times the number of discarded needles as San Francisco, tossed away in parking lots, near schools, downtown around the arenas, parks. This is a scary public hazard. In addition, a 2009 study found 12 percent of injection-drug users in San Francisco were HIV positive. In Miami, it’s 23 percent.
This pilot could make a difference. Lawmakers should give it a chance.