We broke the law and saved lives, and still we’re worried about ‘wrong messages’ in drug policy
"Thirty years ago we resorted to civil disobedience to start a needle exchange program and set an example for the world. Today we watch from the sidelines." A piece written for the Guardian by Alex Wodak, Kate Dolan, and Gino Vumbaca.14 Nov 2016
It was 30 years ago this week that we were among a group of healthcare workers at Sydney’s St Vincent’s hospital who felt compelled to resort to civil disobedience to start Australia’s first needle and syringe program.
It was a program that relied on the assistance and support of Australians who injected drugs.
Numerous attempts to obtain New South Wales health department approval for an official pilot had been rejected. It was estimated at the time that thousands of men who have sex with men living in eastern Sydney had already become infected with HIV, which was then a fatal infection. We were concerned that if HIV also found its way to people who inject drugs then it was only going to be a matter of time before HIV would be widely felt and transmitted throughout the whole community.
The spread of HIV among people who inject drugs in some cities in Europe and the United States was so rapid that over 50% of people injecting drugs in Edinburgh had become infected in less than 18 months. We all knew the only option was to prevent or slow the HIV epidemic among small, high-risk groups.
Setting up a needle and syringe program (NSP) was a very controversial issue at the time. We faced intense and relentless hostility. The staff who took part in setting up this program donated all of the funds needed to provide this service. We were prepared to take the substantial risks in breaking the law because we knew that HIV represented a serious health, social and economic threat to the nation.
Soon after starting, we tested used syringes for HIV. The percentage of positive syringes was rising. HIV was spreading, confirming our worst fears.
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