Former US Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders urged the President and Congress to lift the legal impediments to needle exchange programs, at a press conference hosted by the Drug Policy Foundation in Santa Monica last October, during the DPF conference. Elder's remarks focused on a report by Dr. Dawn Day, entitled Health Emergency: The Spread of Drug-Related AIDS Among African-Americans and Latinos.
"Needle exchanges reduce the transmission of AIDS and do not -- I repeat, do not -- increase the use of drugs," said Elders. "It is long past time for our Congress and our President to end the silence on this issue." According to the Health Emergency report, injection-related AIDS has hit the African-American community the hardest; by the end of 1994, more than 73,000 African-Americans over the age of 13 had contracted or died from injection-related AIDS. Elders also noted that African-Americans suffer disproportionately high arrest and incarceration rates, saying "It's getting where the only way we black women can find black men is in prison or in the graveyard."
Legal barriers to needle exchange programs (NEPs) include prescription and paraphernalia laws at the state level, and language in the Ryan White AIDS care legislation that forbids states from using federal AIDS grant dollars for needle exchange. The Surgeon General has the power to overturn this ban, if evidence shows that NEPs both reduce the spread of AIDS and do not lead to greater levels of community drug use. Internal reviews of the research on needle exchange programs, by several federal agencies, completed in 1993, found that both these conditions were met. The reviews were suppressed by the Clinton administration, however, and Dr. Elders revealed at the DPF conference that all copies of it had been physically removed from her office before she was able to read them.
When questioned about opposition within the black community and leadership to needle exchange programs, Elders answered in her usual blunt manner: "There's a lot of ignorance in our black community," and "they need to find out what's going on, or they need to shut up." The Health Emergency report can be ordered from the Drug Policy Foundation for $5; send check to:
Drug Policy Foundation
4455 Connecticut Ave., NW
Suite B- 500, Washington, DC 20008-2302.
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