Harm reduction in the park

The need for needle exchange -- and the dangers of the mayor's homeless program
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EDITORIAL Anyone with any sense knows that Mayor Gavin Newsom's attempts to clear homeless people out of Golden Gate Park won't work. It's been tried before, under a series of mayors, and in the end, as long as there's no suitable housing available, the park will have long-term residents. You can sweep them out one day and pack the park with cops the next, but eventually the extra attention will die down and the homeless will be back.

But in the meantime, as J.B. Powell reports in this issue, the backlash from the crackdown is hitting facilities like the needle-exchange service in the Haight. And that's a big problem.

The mayor can play cat-and-mouse games with the homeless all he wants, but needle exchange is a crucial public health issue. Dirty needles spread AIDS, hepatitis, and other diseases; this is literally about life and death, and the medical evidence is clear that needle-exchange programs help. They also take a whole lot of dirty needles off the streets (and out of the park): drug users not only obtain clean syringes at the exchange, they also drop off their used ones.

Despite the best efforts of the needle-exchange programs, however, there are going to be users who simply inject, then look for a place to toss their rig. That's why Newsom ought to tell the Recreation and Park Department to look seriously at putting safe, secure disposal facilities in or around Golden Gate Park.

This isn't a radical idea — Santa Cruz, New York, Baltimore, Vancouver, and many other cities provide needle-disposal boxes in areas with high drug use. That keeps a lot of the needles from being discarded in areas where people and animals walk and play — another serious public health concern.

But Newsom and the folks at Rec and Park refuse to consider the idea — because they don't think it would be politically popular. That's a terrible way to approach a health crisis.

Yes, some park neighbors would complain about the presence of canisters designed to hold hazardous medical waste. And it's possible, of course, that vandals could attack the sites and spread dangerous needles all over. But those downsides are relatively modest compared to what we're facing right now: dirty needles are already being discarded in the park. And everyone, including city gardeners and maintenance workers, is at risk from an accidental needle stick.

The city has an official "harm-reduction" policy in place; since it's not possible to stop all drug use, the city's supposed to do whatever possible to prevent contagion and save lives. Secure needle-disposal facilities in and around Golden Gate Park won't solve every drug-related social problem, but they could help save a few lives. And that makes the idea eminently worthy, whatever the political costs.<\!s>*