The ones left behind

December 24, 2006

As readers of this site know, New Jersey has finally joined the rest of the country by allowing pilot programs to distribute clean syringes to drug addicts, thereby curbing the reuse and sharing of dirty needles — one of the major sources of HIV infection.

It’s a good decision. It’s also long overdue, as Diana McCague can tell you. As the leader of the Chai Project, a New Brunswick-based needle exchange that operated for four years in the mid-1990s, McCague (interviewed in this excellent Star-Ledger story) was a pioneer who helped bring the issue right to the steps of the state legislature. Now working in New Mexico, she’s happy to hear about the new law, but not in a mood to pop any champagne bottles:

“Word filters back to me still about individual people I met and where they are now,” McCague said. “They’re dead.”

While she’s relieved by the new law — which allows six communities to host pilot syringe-exchange programs overseen by the state — McCague can’t muster much joy. New Jersey was the last state in the country to make clean syringes accessible to drug addicts.

“There are some people who would say ‘better late than never.’ But it makes me feel sad,” she said. “It makes me think of the incredible number of people who were sick and all the grief and sadness felt by their families.”

It doesn’t take long for her sadness to give way to anger.

“We as a society in New Jersey didn’t care,” McCague said. “We didn’t care because the people who held the power weren’t getting HIV. The people who had the power to prevent those infections failed their constituents.”

In the eight years since the Chai Project stopped distributing needles, 15,000 more people in New Jersey have been diagnosed with AIDS or the human immunodeficiency virus that causes it, according to data from the state health department.

The mode of transmission has remained consistent: Then and now, nearly half of all residents diagnosed with HIV and AIDS — a total of 67,000 people since 1981 — got it by sharing needles tainted with the virus, or had sex with intravenous drug users who used dirty needles.

The Chai Project was illegal, but the New Brunswick police pretty much looked the other way as long as McCague and her colleagues kept a low profile. That policy of benign neglect ended when Deborah Poritz, state attorney general and future state Supreme Court justice, was sicc’d on them by Gov. Christie Whitman.

The governor was worried, you see, that preventing the spread of HIV among drug users and their spouses and sex partners might give kids the message that drug use is okay. Whitman, as you know, went on to serve as a mouthpiece for George W. Bush at the Environmental Protection Agency, parroting the administration’s lies about the air quality in Lower Manhattan following the destruction of the World Trade Center. She currently runs a lobbying group that flacks for polluters. Apparently she is not overly concerned about the messages these activities might send to our kids.

Diana McCague and the workers in the Chai Project were people ahead of their time. It took the rest of the state a long time to catch up with them. It says a lot about McCague that even now, as we celebrate the fact that New Jersey is finally doing the right thing, her thoughts are on the ones who were left behind, and the tragedies that might have been averted.

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