The growing seriousness of the AIDS epidemic has forced many to re-examine our society's zero-tolerance ideal and agree that addicts are better off with clean needles than with AIDS. Still, many cling to the zero-tolerance dogma; they prefer to regard AIDS as a consequence of drug use and hold that the way to reduce AIDS is to reduce drug use (and they always speak of reducing drug use, not drug abuse.) Some prohibitionists go so far as to claim that "legalizers are trying to bring in legalization through the back door" by promoting harm reduction public-health strategies. At a recent hearing on needle-exchange legislation before the Health Care Committee of the Massachusetts legislature, one well known prohibitionist said that her concern was not so much about needle exchange, but about what might be coming next (the dark, looming cloud of legalization).
Needle exchange deserves to be judged on its own merits; the notion of a "back-door" distracts attention from the compelling evidence favoring needle exchange as an HIV prevention measure and a means to encourage addicts into treatment. But the concept does reveal some aspects of the prohibitionist mentality. By attempting to conjure fears of a "back-door," the prohibitionists are saying, in effect, that not only are Americans unable to make their own decisions about drugs; Americans need to be protected from discussion of drug policy! Tolerating exchange of needles might render the American people unable to think rationally on other drug issues.
Furthermore, the argument that needle exchange "encourages drug use" raises serious questions about the morality of a prohibition system. To object to needle exchange on this basis is tantamount to saying that drug users, their lovers and children should get AIDS and die horrible deaths -- to discourage others from using drugs. Many Americans have learned so much hatred that they prefer to see addicts die this way, whether or not it helps anyone else.
If needle exchange is a back-door to anything, it's to our own minds. By learning to see the practical disadvantages of a zero-tolerance policy towards needles, society may reach a point where it can think more objectively about other related issues. This isn't a "sinister cloud" looming on the horizon, but an enlightenment to be eagerly sought. We have nothing to fear from the truth.
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