The Incongruity of Needle Exchanges

Megan McCardle has an excellent little post defending needle exchanges. Along the way, though, she does point out an interesting little incongruity in the policy:

Okay, a conservative or libertarian might argue, but drug users bring this trouble on themselves; why should I a) pay for clean syringes and b) implicitly sanction their irresponsible and self-destructive behavior? Well, okay, leave aside the morality of forcing people to use dirty syringes (really forcing, since as I pointed out in the last post, junkies use dirty works partly because the government won’t let them buy clean ones legally). The problem is, needles are cheap, and treating AIDS isn’t. Given that we’re not going to let them die, it makes much more fiscal sense just to give them the needles.

The libertarian answer is to eliminate both the restrictions on needle purchase, and the government program to distribute them, and I’d support that. But given that we are clearly not going to eliminate the syringe restrictions any time soon, we might as well save money by giving junkies some clean needles.

Personally, I find it strange that needle exchange programs are growing in number, while as Megan rightly points out, “we are clearly not going to eliminate the syringe restrictions any time soon.” That’s the kind of absurdity that only government policies can create.

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Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. dutchmarbel says:

    It has the big advantage that you keep track of the dirty (and possibly infected) needles. Wouldn’t want those lying around…

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Isn’t this a similar line of reasoning to that which has lead to bans on smoking and fatty foods? I.e. it’s cheaper to do than treating the conditions that they lead to? I’m not being snotty, I’m trying to delineate where the argument makes sense and where it doesn’t.

  3. Steve says:

    The problem is, needles are cheap, and treating AIDS isn’t.

    Can someone explain something to me? How is not giving an addict a clean needle for every injection going to spread AIDS? A person isn’t going to spontaneously generate the virus from using a previously used needle. It would have to have been used by an infected person first, right? So if a person keeps using the same needle exclusively and doesn’t let anyone else use their needle isn’t that safe? I understand the possibility of bacterial infection but then their not exactly cleaning the injection area with betadine or alcohol. So, what is the benefit of these needle exchange programs? Why don’t we just teach them to not share needles?

  4. Joe R. says:

    Even if a person only uses their own needle, it doesn’t last forever. They dull over time, or get broken, so they’d have to be replaced eventually. The replacement will come from the easiest source, which, in the absence of some type of free or commercially available needle, will probably be from another drug user.