Local AIDS organizations are attacking Gov. Pete Wilson's veto last week of measures that would lift the ban on distributing hypodermic needles to intravenous drug users who are at risk of contracting the AIDS virus.
"Needle exchange adds another weapon in the arsenal against the spread of AIDS," Gunther Freehill, executive director of the AIDS Regional Board in Los Angeles County, said Thursday. "Failure to provide clean needles to people at risk for HIV infection is an act of criminal negligence."
Assembly Bill 2525, introduced by Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and passed by the Legislature in August, would have allowed needle and syringe exchange pilot projects in Los Angeles County, San Francisco and other cities.
Proponents argued that distributing clean needles in exchange for used ones curbs the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus among intravenous drug users, the fastest-growing group of AIDS patients. There are up to 190,000 intravenous drug users in Los Angeles County, according to the most recent estimates by UCLA's Drug Abuse Research Center.
Wilson vetoed the Assembly version of the bill Sept. 26, arguing that needle exchange would encourage drug use. In his veto message, Wilson argued that communities with needle exchange programs would become "a magnet for IV drug users." Four days later, the governor vetoed an almost identical bill by state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) that also would have authorized needle exchange pilot programs.
"I just feel the governor is misguided on this one," Watson said Thursday. "We are trying to stem the spread of AIDS. At the point of contact (during needle exchange), we can advise, educate and direct users to treatment. And we can give them a clean needle so we have one less contaminated needle in circulation."
Joyce Canham of AIDS Project Los Angeles called the governor's veto politically motivated.
"Wilson is out to vanquish the Democratic (Legislature), even . . . at the expense of public health," she said during a news conference at APLA headquarters.
It is illegal in California to distribute drug paraphernalia, including needles. For the last year, Los Angeles County health workers have distributed bleach to disinfect needles.
Needle exchange programs have been conducted in other U.S. cities such as New Haven, Conn., and Philadelphia for several years. Despite the California ban, an underground program was launched three months ago in Los Angeles by a group called Clean Needles Now. The group's co-founder, Renee Edgington, said her organization will continue to exchange one clean needle for every used one despite the governor's veto.
"We have to reach out to people wherever they are," Edgington said. "We can't wait for people to get drug-free before we help them. . . . Lifesaving services need to be as visible as the drugs are on our streets."