To the editors:

Having spent the last four years working in a project that studies and tries to prevent the spread of AIDS among Chicago’s injecting drug users and their sex partners, I’ll suggest to Kevin Kitchen [Letters, July 3] several ways in which a needle exchange may benefit him and his family. I doubt anything I say would inspire compassion in him for the people he attacks, so I’ll skip that issue except to note that many local drug addicts are military veterans–people he cited as in need of more of our attention–whose drug problems began in Vietnam or are related to their experiences in that war.

A needle exchange will benefit Mr. Kitchen in at least three ways. First, AIDS is expensive. The average lifetime cost of treating a person with AIDS is $102,000. In the absence of medical insurance, taxpayers like Mr. Kitchen foot the bill. By reducing AIDS among drug injectors, a needle exchange will conserve Mr. Kitchen’s money. Mr. Kitchen may feel that society should not pay such costs, but the implications of that argument–that society need not pay for medical services when the damage appears to be self-inflicted–is probably not a standard that Mr. Kitchen would want to apply to himself or his family.

By reducing the number of people who become infected with the AIDS virus, a needle exchange also lowers the chance that Mr. Kitchen or his loved ones will have sex with, get a transfusion from, or share drug injection equipment with someone who carries the virus. Like most of us, I hope that my loved ones will never have unsafe sex, need a transfusion, or inject drugs. But in case our wishes aren’t granted, shouldn’t we work to lower the likelihood that such an event will result in AIDS?

Finally, a needle exchange should greatly reduce the chance for Mr. Kitchen, his family, the neighborhood children, and others that populate his world to be accidentally stuck by an infected needle. Since carrying a syringe exposes addicts to arrest, syringes typically are discarded soon after injecting. In this way, used syringes end up in alleys, bushes, gangways, public bathrooms and such. Those who inject at their own residence often throw out used syringes with other trash, thus rendering garbage bins a potential hazard. By making used syringes valuable–they can be traded for a new syringe with a street value of $2-$5–needle exchanges greatly encourage addicts and street needle vendors to collect not only their own used syringes, but also any they can find. Needle exchanges promise to do for discarded syringes what aluminum recyclers did for discarded beverage cans: make them a far less common sight. Fewer used syringes in circulation or laying about equates to greater safety for trash collectors, dumpster users, police officers, rehabbers of abandoned buildings, janitors, and children playing outdoors.

In closing, I’ll note that much of what Mr. Kitchen seems to abhor about drug addicts has to do not with the innate effects of the drugs themselves–I’d wager that he’d be hard-pressed to identify someone high on heroin or cocaine–but with the fact that drug control policies have turned 10 cent quantities of drugs into $20 bags. In other words, Mr. Kitchen should try to separate the effects of drugs on people from the effects of making addicting substances enormously expensive. At the turn of this century when opiates and cocaine were readily and legally available, addicts seemed like very different people than they do now. Please read some history on this subject, Mr. Kitchen; doing so might not change your mind, but it would give you a broader context to assess your feelings (may I suggest Licit and Illicit Drugs by Edward Brecher).

Lawrence Ouellet, PhD

AIDS Outreach Intervention Project

School of Public Health

University of Illinois at Chicago