There is no argument that the best way to prevent the spread of HIV and other bloodborne illnesses is to refrain from engaging in risky behavior. One of the fastest ways that HIV spreads is through illegal IV drug use. The financial and social repercussions of IV drug use (most commonly heroin, cocaine, and diverted forms of pharmaceuticals) are severe enough; add the existence of a chronic, painful, fatal illness and the problem compounds tenfold.
The Idea is Terrifying
For many addicts, just the idea of not using for one day or even a few hours is terrifying – worse than death itself. Those who oppose clean syringe availability have argued that addicts are aware of the consequences, and are only hurting themselves, killing themselves quicker. Opponents have also expressed concerns that accessibility of syringes might increase IV drug use, reasoning that those who were once deterred by fear of disease could be lured into the next level of drug abuse by the safer alternatives.
But what are the real repercussions when an addict contracts HIV? Have new laws allowing addicts to buy syringes over the counter or through exchange programs increased drug use by frequency or population?
Any IV drug user who contracts HIV, or any other chronic illness via blood such as Hepatitis C, will eventually need medical care. It does not matter if the person is still using or has been sober for ten years, has Medicaid or the best private pay insurance (or none at all) – the expense of this medical care will be astronomical. This expense is absorbed not only by the individual, but the government, insurance companies, and sometimes private charities; in short, by everyone in the community both locally and nationally no matter where you live.
In addition to the financial aspect, the physical and social burden that the disease itself puts on the patient and those around him or her is extreme. Even setting aside the actual physical pain, there is lost work and productivity, other healthy family members are burdened by caretaking, and there may be infected offspring. One serious illness causes a ripple effect not only into the immediate family but co-workers, friends, healthcare workers, and other community members. The duration of the acute stages of illnesses such as AIDS and cirrhosis caused by Hepatitis is also important to consider – patients do not fall ill and die within weeks or months, but years, and often the treatment is as debilitating as the illness itself.
Since many areas began passing laws to increase the accessibility of syringes beyond those with a diabetic prescription, there is no longer a basis for any founded fears of increased drug use. Leniency still varies from state to state in the US, mostly depending on political climate, yet nearly all have loosened restrictions in some form or another.
Making and keeping new, clean syringes available to the IV drug using population may not seem like a step in the right direction, but perhaps we should ask ourselves this: is our true goal not a happier, healthier world? If so, then let’s begin with keeping people as safe as they can be under their present circumstances. We can only fix one thing at a time.