Not everyone on the board approves. Although I saw no one else come to testify against the program, 5th District board member Mike Antonovich pretty much toed the old line on dope fiends. There are two kinds of people, Antonovich appeared to be saying -- drug fiends and normal people. And the only proper expenditure of funds on narcotics prevention should be to keep people in the second category out of the first. ”We have to realize there is no such individual as a healthy junkie . . . Tax dollars are better spent to keep young people and adults off drugs and provide treatment for those who are on drugs.“
He continued, ”We don’t have good medical care if our doctors are addicts; we don‘t have good education if the teachers are addicted.“ The last seemed a bit of a non sequitur. Did Antonovich really think that the proposed program, rather than simply exchanging new needles to drug users for old ones, was planning to hand out syringes to medical and educational professionals to encourage experimentation? Who knows? At this point, members of the supervisor’s own staff seemed to be wincing. (Antonovich‘s conservative colleague, Don Knabe, also voted against the measure.)
In fact, as Dr. Fielding explained, the county’s needle program ”would include HIV prevention, testing, early intervention and treatment“ as well as provision of condoms and bleach to reduce the risk of infections. Fielding stressed that the exchange program is a crucial first step to get addicts back in touch with the health-care system that can both wean them from addiction and prevent disease. ”The benefits probably extend beyond AIDS prevention; there is evidence that you can solve other problems, and that HIV can be prevented for one-third the cost of treating someone with [AIDS].“
But to some people closely involved with such programs, the potential goes even beyond that. Needle exchange gives addicts themselves a chance to make a crucial, first-step decision to alter destructive behavior by giving them a chance to save their own lives. To begin, perhaps, an escape from the Golden Arm cycle.
Yaroslavsky credited health activist Mimi West with pushing the measure into law. West, a longtime local public-health advocate and member of the county‘s Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Commission, said she first got interested in the needle-exchange program in 1992, when she met an exchange volunteer from New York who told her, ”Every time I hand out a clean needle, I feel like I’m saving a life.“
”There‘s no greater mitzvah than that,“ West exulted.