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Dirty Needles' High Costs

August 19, 2004

Each year, about 1,000 Californians become infected with HIV and 3,000 with hepatitis C after sharing dirty syringes. Untold numbers more are subsequently infected by these drug abusers, at an incalculable cost in lives and healthcare funds.

The situation is not hopeless. This week, the state Assembly has a chance to prevent at least some new infections by passing a bill by Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) that lets pharmacists sell up to 10 clean syringes without a prescription to people 18 or older.

The bill, SB 1159, would put California in line with the 45 other states that permit limited syringe sales without a doctor's approval.

Last year, then-Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a similar bill by Vasconcellos, arguing that it would weaken local authorities' oversight of syringe sales. On Tuesday, Vasconcellos addressed this by amending the bill to make syringe sales "subject to authorization by a county or city," thus giving police the ability to, for instance, stop a pharmacy from selling syringes to people who might end up reselling them on the street.

Opponents of freely available syringes argue that they promote drug abuse, but it seems absurd to suppose that anyone would opt to start taking illegal drugs simply because he or she could get hold of a clean needle.

Serious drug addicts have few compunctions about using dirty needles when they need a fix, but many would use clean ones if they could get them.

There is no evidence that drug abuse is any higher in states that do not require prescriptions for syringes.

More than 26,000 Californians have AIDS because of syringe-sharing. Legislators can't stop junkies from shooting up, but they can give them a better alternative than poisoned needles.

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