"I want to test you for hepatitis C and HIV," my doctor said to me during a routine physical in 2000. I'd been in recovery for 15 years, after battling drug addiction for fifteen years (a too public battle for me and my famed families). In the days before we knew about HIV and hepatitis C, I had shared needles -- it was something some of us did. The last time I had done that was in 1981, just as the first cases of AIDS were being identified in the United States.
I'd avoided getting tested for either HIV or Hep C out of fear that God had saved me from drowning in the disease of addiction only to kick me to death with AIDS or cirrhosis on the beach. It seemed the perfect irony, a final exclamation point on a life of great privilege and promise unappreciated and unfulfilled.
My doctor gave me the good news/bad news: I wasn't infected with HIV, but I was infected with hepatitis C.
I'd heard of hepatitis C -- folks trudging alongside me on the recovery road were getting diagnosed with hep C, and it didn't sound good. My doctor gave me the whole cold truth -- without treatment, I might face liver cancer, liver transplant. Maybe death.
A lot of things came together at that point in my life. I've died many, many times during my addiction, but I've never been confronted with the possibility of really dying in sobriety.
With the support of medical professionals, family and friends -- particularly those in recovery -- I survived hepatitis C and became an author and advocate for drug treatment, hepatitis C and HIV treatment, and better prevention policy.
In the ten years since I was cured, I've met thousands of persons confronting a diagnosis of HIV or hepatitis C, a cruel remnant of not only their past, but also a public policy environment in the United States that differs from the rest of the industrialized world. Most of the world responded to AIDS outbreaks among injection drug users by investing in addiction treatment and making sterile syringes available to those who would not, or could not, stop using drugs immediately. Those policies kept Western Europe from suffering a major outbreak of HIV among injection drug users, and a hepatitis C rate that is lower than the U.S.
There is absolutely no controversy among public health researchers and scientists on syringe access. Over 200 studies from around the world concur that allowing adults to legally access and possess syringes suppresses the spread of these diseases without contributing to any increase in drug use, crime or syringe litter.
It is time for California to catch up with the rest of the world. We have that option through two good bills that Governor Schwarzenegger should sign.
- SB 1029 by Senator Leland Yee would allow pharmacists the discretion to sell a limited number of syringes to adults without a prescription.
- AB 1858 by Assemblymember Bob Blumenfield would allow the state Department of Public Health to authorize syringe exchange programs wherever the conditions exist for the rapid spread of HIV or hep C through syringe sharing.
Neither bill costs much to implement, and will save taxpayers billions, literally billions, by averting costly infections.
In politics, there are always those who propose half-measures, like allowing legal syringe access to be a decision of local government. That makes no sense--communicable diseases don't respect the county line, and Californians deserve equal access to a proven disease prevention strategy, no matter where they live. Furthermore, all state taxpayers pay for the healthcare of a low-income person, no matter where he or she lives.
I trust the Governor will respect the scientific consensus that supports legal syringe access. Those of us strong enough to recover from addiction deserve a chance to get better--all the way better. And the taxpaying public deserves smart prevention policy. Governor, please sign SB 1029 (Yee) and AB 1858 (Blumenfield).