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CB 2 gives unified nod to LIC needle swap program

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For months, controversy surrounded the proposed facility where intravenous drug users would have access to unused needles in hopes of stemming the spread of blood-borne diseases such as AIDS/HIV. But during a roll-call vote at last Thursday's monthly meeting, each and every CB 2 member present offered a yes vote for the program to be operated by the Aids Center of Queens County at 42-57 Hunter St. The facility will operate Tuesdays and Fridays from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

"Whenever you go into a community with a needle exchange program, it's always a little controversial," said Philip Glotzer, ACQC executive director. "I never expected a unanimous vote from any community board."

Some neighbors had expressed concern that the program could attract drug addicts to the area, while others had worried that providing needles could encourage drug use.

In the past, supporters of the plan have flatly denied the claims, pointing out that drug use rates actually drop with needle exchange programs and that needles are already available for purchase in many pharmacies without a prescription.

The Hunter Street exchange center must still be vetted by the state Department of Health, Glotzer said. The last such facility in the state opened in Ithaca seven years ago, so planners do not have a baseline from which to estimate how long the approval process will take, he said.

"It would be ideal if we could start by summer," said Donald Grove, who appeared to shed a few tears after witnessing the unanimous vote.

Grove, who has helped coordinate needle exchange programs for 14 years, was hired by ACQC to oversee the application process.

The last similar center opened in New York City more than nine years ago. Grove blamed the lengthy interval between the opening of needle exchange centers on the Giuliani administration, which he said was openly hostile to such initiatives.

Glotzer said ACQC will also work to establish needle exchange centers in Jamaica, Far Rockaway and East Elmhurst.

CB 2, which covers Woodside, Sunnyside and Hunters Point, initially blocked the needle exchange program, which was originally proposed as a mobile facility, in March. But after a meeting with Borough President Helen Marshall in her office, officials hammered out a compromise that established the Hunter Street site as a permanent location and set proposed hours of operation.

CB 2's health and human services committee, whose members supported the center, attached some caveats to the final deal before the vote.

During the start-up period, a seven-member community advisory board made up of people from Community Boards 1 and 2 will be formed to advise ACQC of neighborhood concerns and ensure community input, said the committee's chairman, Ron Casey. A permanent advisory board will then be established once the center is in operation.

The board requested that facility officials conduct a daily sweep of the surrounding area to check for discarded needles and also asked that the board have access to the reports the center must submit to the state Health Department. CB 2 will also receive reports outlining the needle exchange center's outreach efforts to determine if the site is really needed.

If numbers are low, Casey asked, "is it because there's nobody down there that needs this program?"

Glotzer said CB 2 members should be commended for their stance on the project. "They dealt with a subject that no one wanted to deal with anywhere in Queens."

Said Deputy Borough President Karen Koslowitz: "Not only did you vote for the needle exchange program, you voted tonight to save lives. So thank you for saving lives."

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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