City May Offer Needles to IV Drug Users

A Monday night Cambridge City Council resolution instructed city officials to explore whether Cambridge could imitate Boston's needle exchange program for intravenous (IV) drug users.

The resolution, proposed by Councillor Saundra M. Graham, was designed to mitigate the AIDS epidemic. Sharing infected needles during IV drug use is the second highest mode of transmission for the incurable disease, and 26 percent of all IV drug users are infected with the AIDS virus.

Graham said Monday that she also wanted to draw attention to IV drug users as a group in danger from the disease. She said she hoped such an exchange program would protect drug users, as well as their partners and children, who are also at risk.

Sixty-six percent of all children with AIDS received the disease from mothers who were IV drug users, according to Dr. James Curran of the Shriners Burn Institute.

"We have to look at all kinds of ways to stem the tide of AIDS," Graham said.


Councillor William H. Walsh delayed voting on the resolution at last week's meeting by exercising a "Charter Right." This privilege allows any Councillor to delay a vote for one week to gain information on the proposal.

And at Monday night's meeting, Walsh added an amendment to the proposal that would allow Cambridge to provide counseling to IV drug users. He said he wanted to add an ethical as well as a medical aspect to the program by encouraging drug users to "seek the counsel of clergy and rabbis."

Walsh said he would not have voted for a resolution with only the needle exchange provision. "Giving out needles to IV drug users is like giving gasoline to pyromaniacs," he added.

One of the Cambridge officials charged with studying the feasibility of the needle exchange program said he supports multiple approaches to ending drug abuse, such as methadone maintenance and total drug rehabilitation.

"At this point we are happy to study it," Dr. Paul R. Epstein, Commisioner of the Cambridge AIDS Task Force, said of the exchange program. "All these are important because they bring people into counseling," he said.

One Harvard AIDS researcher said he supported the proposal.

"If they're going to inject, we have to make sure that they do it safely, with a clean needle," said Christopher M. Farnet, a founding member of the AIDS Action Committee, a 2000-member volunteer network to help patients with the virus.

Providing drug users with clean needles, AIDS education, and access to drug rehabilitation are all important ways to mitigate the epidemic, said Farnet, who studies the AIDS virus at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Prior to Monday night's meeting, six Councillors spoke at a vigil outside City Hall protesting the bombing of Cambridge's sister city in El Salvador, San Jose las Flores. Helicopter units of the El Salvadoran army attacked the village on April 27, according to David Grosser, chairman of the Cambridge-El Salvador Sister City Project.

In 1987 the villagers of San Jose las Flores asked the city for support, and since March of that year, Cambridge has sent at least two official delegations to El Salvador. Another is planned for this June, Grosser said. The sister city organization has raised $5000 for medicines and construction materials for the Salvadoran village.

"We want to serve witness to the fact that people in the United States care about what happens to our brothers and sisters in San Jose las Flores," said Councillor David E. Sullivan.

Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci said he intended to declare a day of solidarity with Cambridge's sister city.

"I think that's the right way to go about it," Sullivan said.