Texas Needle-Swap Activists Face Charges

Police plan to seek drug paraphernalia charges against three activists who were caught operating their own needle-exchange program.

BY Matthew Van Atta

January 24 2008 12:00 AM ET

Police plan to
seek drug paraphernalia charges against three San Antonio,
Texas, activists who were caught operating their own
needle-exchange program.

Bill Day, a
cofounder of the nonprofit group Bexar Area Harm Reduction
Coalition, and board members Mary Casey and Melissa Lujan
were initially cited January 5 with possession of drug
paraphernalia, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of
up to $500.

A police officer
spotted the three parked at a corner ''with several
known prostitutes and drug addicts next to the vehicle,''
according to a police report. Day told the officer he
was offering clean hypodermic needles in exchange for
dirty ones, the report said. Police confiscated the
clean needles, left the group with the dirty needles, and
cited them.

Assistant Police
Chief David Head said his department plans to refile the
case this week with the Bexar County prosecutor's office
with a charge of distribution of paraphernalia, which
carries a punishment of up to a year in jail.

''These are
enormously decent, charitable people, and what's happening
with them smacks of persecution,'' said Neel Lane, one of
the attorneys representing the coalition.

The citations
come as Bexar County health officials wait for a state
attorney general's opinion on legislation passed last year
authorizing the county to pilot a needle-exchange
program. District Attorney Susan Reed has warned local
officials that the legislation doesn't shield
participants from drug paraphernalia laws.

Head said if the
pilot program moves forward, the law would allow only
the county's health authority to run a syringe-exchange
program, and not a private group such as Day's.

Day has been open
about his group's work. ''Our volunteers regard their
involvement as a Christian ministry work intended to
alleviate egregious suffering and improve the lives of
the least among us,'' he said. ''The statement and
actions of the district attorney have brought all needle
exchange activities to a halt. As a result, we can expect
transmission of hepatitis and HIV to increase.''

Advocates of
needle-exchange programs said they are key to reducing the
rates of AIDS and HIV infections, and cut down on the
transmission of other diseases such as hepatitis.
Opponents counter that the programs promote drug use.
(AP)

Tags: Health

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