Living Clean

The Minnesota AIDS Project tries to shoot a clean-syringes provision through the Legislature.

Studies and reports by the National Academy of Science, the General Accounting Office, the Office of Technology Assessment, the National Institute of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health all conclude that increased access to syringes will cause no increase in the rate of drug use, or it will cause a decrease (usually because of accompanying educational efforts). A study of increased syringe access in Boston showed no escalation in the crime rate, no initiation of young people into drug use, and no attraction of addicts from other cities. More important, when Connecticut implemented a similar pharmacy-access law in 1992, new HIV infections were reduced by a third.

In light of this information (and because major media outlets from CNN to Time/Warner have recently reported on the correlation between dirty needles and HIV) Tracy was confident the syringe provision would enjoy wide, bipartisan support. Still, when Stanek's amendment came to a vote, it was defeated by the narrowest of margins: 66 for, 67 against. Sue Power, Director of Women with a Point, says she isn't surprised by the Legislature's reticence. She's been working with addicts on South Minneapolis streets since last June, providing more than 20 drug-addicted clients with on-the-street outreach, education, and prevention, including clean needles.

"People are so concerned about contributing to someone's habit, they forget that if you're giving an addict clean syringes you're saving their life," Power says. "I work with people all the time who are HIV positive. And they're gong to shoot up whether they get a clean syringe or not. They're going to use dirty, they're going to share, they're going to shoot with a broken one. That's sad, but it doesn't mean we should turn our backs."

Another House amendment to the Omnibus Bill, requiring that pharmacists take in one dirty needle for every one they sell, was introduced by Peggy Leppik (R-Golden Valley) on Friday. It passed. Tracy, who calls the amendment "not particularly workable," hopes a compromise can be worked out in conference committee. "We agreed to this amendment, because disposal is a consensus-building issue," Tracy says. "The retailers and pharmacists aren't going to like it. They're concerned about logistics. But I think we'll end up with something everyone can live with--which is amazing. Four months ago, it would have been very hard to get bipartisan support for increased access. I think people have realized this is a way to get ahead of one large part of an epidemic."

One pharmacy expecting increased traffic if syringe access becomes law is Butler Drug at 2600 Nicollet Ave. in Minneapolis. The store's owner of 30 years, Herb Whittemore, supports MAP's initiative for the same reason he helped set up a neighborhood methadone program and provides condoms for people on medical assistance. "When people get overtaken by the fire of human desire, all we can do is work to make sure they don't burn themselves or others."

Characterizing his current syringe-sale policy as "fairly conservative" because of drug paraphernalia laws, Whittemore says he's looking forward to seeing whether increased access will make a difference to his customers. But he doubts other pharmacists will act accordingly, even though the Minnesota Pharmacists Association hasn't object to MAP's proposal; because the choice to sell syringes to customers without prescriptions will still, ultimately, be up to each individual pharmacist. Which means people like Greta--slurring their speech and fighting off sleep--can still be turned away.

"There's no protocol. No mandate for the pharmacists," Whittemore says. "So if they don't like how you look or how you talk, you're on your own: back on the streets; back to the dirty needles."

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