Despite impassioned pleas from AIDS activists, the County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday refused to support pending state legislation that would legalize clean-needle exchange programs for intravenous drug users.
Members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, known as ACT UP, angrily left the board chamber after the 4-1 vote, some of them shouting "Shame!" at the supervisors, who declined to go along with a task force's recommendations.
ACT UP member Ben Schultz said the decision "will result in the deaths of many San Diegans," but he and others vowed to continue their 6-month-old effort to distribute clean needles to drug users in an effort to curb the spread of the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Supervisors George Bailey, Brian Bilbray, John MacDonald and Susan Golding voted not to support legislation in both houses of the Legislature that would establish pilot needle exchange programs in California cities that want them.
Supervisor Leon Williams supported the concept. Golding first voted with Williams, then switched her vote when she apparently realized she had not voted the way she intended.
Bilbray and Golding said they could not support a program that might leave the impression of condoning drug use.
"It would be a crime for government to send a message that somehow there is a safe way to use drugs," Bilbray said. The only thing worse, he added, would be to subsidize it.
Speakers on both sides of the issue debated the conclusiveness of research on whether needle exchanges are an effective AIDS deterrent and whether they encourage intravenous drug use. But supporters of the concept outnumbered opponents.
"The opportunity to save lives is rare," said one man, who told the supervisors he is infected with the AIDS virus. "Someone who fails to save lives in the face of overwhelming evidence will be held accountable one place or another, somehow."