WASHINGTON -- The RV arrived at a corner near Marvin Gaye Park, also known to locals as "Needle Park." A steady procession of addicts came to the door, mounted a few steps and sat down. One by one, they dropped used needles into a container and received new needles in return, along with alcohol wipes and the small, bottle cap-like "cookers" in which heroin is heated.
Reggie, Teefari and Hazel -- staff members at PreventionWorks!, Washington's largest needle exchange program -- are at the park twice a week, offering clean needles to prevent disease transmission, condoms, drug treatment referrals, AIDS testing and a few kind words. "You still play the guitar?" "You'll have a swollen hand if you keep going there." "Love you baby."
It is the eyes and arms of addicts that draw your attention. Eyes that are glassy, or unnaturally bright, or tired beyond exhaustion. Arms that are ulcerated sticks or purpled parchment; with repeated use, needles become blunt and tear the skin. Some addicts adopt a defensive politeness -- "yes, sir" -- and quickly leave. Others want to talk -- "I love plants and I love kids" -- trying to provide hints of their humanity. They are America's least wanted.
They are also at the center of a controversy. Needle exchange programs have always been politically controversial, with opponents arguing they send a mixed moral message about drug use. The House of Representatives recently passed an amendment banning exchanges in the District of Columbia within 1,000 thousand feet of sites where children gather -- which, if approved by the Senate, would effectively put programs like PreventionWorks! out of business. Staffers joke that they could only work in graveyards and the middle of the Potomac.
This restriction might make sense if needle exchange programs increased the number of addicts. But they don't. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, has comprehensively reviewed the scientific studies on needle exchange. "It does not," he says, "result in an increase in drug abuse, and it does decrease the incidence of HIV. ... The idea that kids are going to walk out of school and start using drugs because clean needles are available is ridiculous."