Pin It

Conscientious Injectors 

The enforcement of drug laws should be less hurtful than the dangers inherent indrug use itself, say the "harm reductionists" at Prevention Point, who practice what they preach by distributing 1.5 million needles to the city's drug users

Wednesday, Jun 28 1995
Ah, San Francisco in the summertime. The sun beating down on your face, the fresh air carrying a hint of sea salt with it, the friendly young woman handing you a bundle of clean syringes...

It's 6 p.m. Tuesday, neddle-exchange time on Duboce Street near the Safeway supermarket, where I'm standing alongside five volunteers from Prevention Point, an organization that - in violation of state and city law, as well as a June 7 attorney general ruling - distributes 1.5 million syringes a year to an estimated 2,500 of San Francisco's injecting drug addicts.

The point of the exchange, so the speak, is to reduce the spread of AIDS and other diseases via needle-sharing, something junkies are notorious for. Theoretically, if you give druggies clean needles in return for their dirty ones, they won't use the dirty ones again - because they can't. Neither will their friends, lovers, or spouses. Kids won't prick their fingers on Dad's used point. Fewer cases of HIV transmission, less hepatitis-B and -C transmission, a whole lot fewer abscesses and heart and blood infections.

By now, everyone knows that bleach can be used to sterilize syringes and needles, but bleach isn't a long-term solution to blood-borne infection. Bleached syringes become weathered and worn, and after repeated use the points on the Micro-Fine IV needles grow dull, making them painful to use. Sometimes the needles turn kinked ot barbed, causing more pain and infection. New needles are a must.

Needle exchange is the boldest example of "harm reduction," a '90s public-policy idea that holds that the enforcement of drug laws should be less harmful and costly to users and bystanders than the dangers inherent in drug use itself. Harm reductionists like Arnold Trebach of the Drug Policy Foundation and the people at Prevention Point posit that drug use is a public health problem, not a criminal problem. They say imprisoning drug addicts for a habit they seem unable to curb makes as much sense as busting children for having chicken pox.

After almost a decade of vilifying heroin users, our culture seems ready to humanize junkies via outreach projects like needle exchanges. Armes with medical evidence that drug users can take better care of their health if given the chance, the harm reductionists are tilting against high political odds to bring drug users inside the medical tent. Help them help themselves, say the harm reductionists, so we can fight AIDS. So we can slow or stop drug users' self-destruction. So we can decrease the costs engendered by drug use to society - theft, illness, the warehousing of drug users in megaprisons. The message is simple: If drug users are sick, a compassionate society should attempt to minimize their suffering.

The Duboce exchange consists of a couple of small steel tables upon which a banquet of condoms, cotton balls, and alcohol wipes is displayed. But these are a sideshow. The main event is the thousands of clean Becton-Dickinson U-100 insulin syringes displayed in their bright orange boxes, waiting for a new home. There's also a "biohazard" bucket beside one of the tables for the safe caching of contaminated needles prior to their incineration.

Prevention Point currently operates nine exchange sites in the city, as regular as a bus schedule. In fact, Prevention Point has printed a schedule in English ans Spanish on a convenient 3x5 card. Each site dispenses needles and accessories one night a week, except for Sixth Street, which runs three nights a week.

The Duboce Street site is popular, garnering 60 to 90 people during each two-hour-long exchange. It's not as popular as the one on 14th Street near Mission, which regularly attracts around 200 exchangers, but businesss is so brisk that the clientele forms a line before the exchange opens.

Located behind the Safeway between Church and Market streets, the Duboce Street site is inconspicuous but not invisible to passers-by. Not inconspicuous enough, if you ask Safeway. Although the exchange is conducted on a public sidewalk, a couple of Ambassador Security guards dressed in cop drag, their radios squealing full blast, approach the exchange as it gets under way. For the fourth consecutive Tuesday, they politely ask just exactly what is going on.

The stream of clients lined up at the exchanges ripples away from the guards. Nobody wants attention. Nobody wants trouble. The clients perform the mental equation in their heads: Is this where the needle exchange finally gets busted, and what happens to people who are caught walking toward it with a bunch of highly illegall, slightly used hypodermics? No way to get out of that one, friends. They can type my DNA. I've seen the O.J. trial.

Might be better to come back after this has blown over.
Yana Wirengard, who is ferrying Prevention Point's supplies between this site and two others tonight, knows the drill. Deftly motioning the guards away from the exchange, she patiently explains that this is public property, that she's tried - without success - to reach the store's manager for a meeting about the exchange.

After a few minutes, she persuades the guards that yes, this has all been talked about before; yes, yes, this a public property, we've been trying to meet with the manager, yes, yes, yes. The guards leave, satisfied until next Tuesday, and the needle exchange begins in earnest. The clients queue up as if a cashier has opened a new register in a busy Safeway. Orderly lines form. Most used points are bundled into groups of five or 10, and there is no limit to the number of needles you can swap. One drug user brought in 500 at the Taylor Street exchange, saying that he was exchanging for his entire household. A clipboard-wielding volunteer ticks off the points as they're deposited in the biohazard bucket and calls the total to another volunteer handling the clean syringes.

"34, huh?" a volunteer says to the client. "OK, you want longs or shorts?" in reference to half-inch or 1-inch needles. The older the client, the more likely he'll want longs - he might have to dig a little deeper to find a vein.

About The Author

Paul D. Kretkowski


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular