The Needles and the Damage Done


Cary Caldwell of the San Antonio Current reports on a policing strategy of genius not seen since the salad days of Lt. Charles Marimow: Prosectuing volunteers for needle-exchange programs.

On Thursday, January 23, the police department plucked a "traffic ticket" misdemeanor from Municipal Court and re-filed it with the District Attorney's office as a more serious Class A misdemeanor against three volunteers with the Bexar Area Harm Reduction Coalition, a needle exchange and condom program. Now, 73-year-old Bill Day, 67-year-old Mary Casey and registered nurse Melissa Lujan 39, face up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine each for allegedly distributing narcotic paraphernalia. The trio was cited by patrol officers on January 5 while taking used syringes from addicts and prostitutes on the street for disposal by the Metro Health District. They showed officers what they were doing — reportedly handing out baggies containing a new insulin syringe, a condom, a cotton ball, an alcohol whip, a commercial bottle cap for cooking a drug dose, and referral pamphlets to public-health agencies.

"It's not like they were doing anything sneaky," said State Representative Ruth McClendon, a longtime advocate for legalizing needle exchanges in Texas. "This group is well known in our community."

But in the eyes of the police and the DA, these perfectly legal items, when assembled  in a baggie and given away, constitute a "heroin injection rig." 

"You cannot flaunt the law regardless of how well-intentioned you are," First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg explained.

I'm going to go ahead and assume that the DA made the flaunt/flout error, which goes some way toward explaining his confusion. "Every day we're not doing what we're supposed to be doing, someone else is catching HIV or hepatitis unnecessarily," says one of the samaritans Caldwell spoke to.

Last year, Steve Chapman wondered if needle exchange opponents simply wanted people to drop dead.