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The LAist Interview: Shoshanna Scholar

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As part of LAist's commemoration of World AIDS Day, the LAist Interview this week features Shoshanna Scholar, Executive Director of Clean Needles Now. CNN is a grassroots needle exchange organization which also provides a range of crucial services related to HIV/AIDS prevention. Unlike other types of education and outreach efforts, Shoshanna’s line of work deals with one of the more controversial aspects of harm reduction programs. Shoshanna has much to report from the trenches of the AIDS crisis in Los Angeles. 1. Age and Occupation:

30 and I am the Executive Director of a non-profit needle exchange program.

2. How long have you lived in Los Angeles?

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I’ve lived here since December 1999

3. Where are you from?

I am from the Canadian prairie west - Regina, Saskatchewan

4. How has Clean Needles Now responded to the AIDS crisis specifically in Los Angeles?

In Los Angeles, needle exchange programs were started by artists, drug users and AIDS activists in the late 80s. These programs were a response to the lack of HIV/AIDS prevention services that were addressing the problem practically. Needle exchange programs recognize that abstinence isn’t an option for everyone and that people have a right to protect their own health and the health of their communities without exception.

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Needle exchange programs like mine, Clean Needles Now, strive to meet injection drug users where they are at- we work on Skid Row in downtown LA, near MacArthur Park, and on Hollywood backstreets. There are programs doing similar work all over the city. We recognize peoples’ privacy and so the program is completely anonymous, we are non-judgmental and do not make our services contingent on anything. We take in dirty needles for safe disposal and we give out clean ones. We also provide safer sex and injection equipment, information, and referrals.

Currently injection drug use is second only to sexual transmission of HIV. 30% of new HIV infections are due to sharing needles but the percentage is higher if you consider the number of cases related to drug users and their larger community, their families and sex partners.

In Los Angeles, needle exchange was made legal by a mayor’s declaration of a state of AIDS emergency in 1991. This year the city declared a new state of emergency to replace the old one. In 1994 the City started funding needle exchange programs through the office of the City AIDS Coordinator.

Through these city funded programs last year 11,000 people came to needle exchange programs (many of them were exchanging for other folks, as well.) 73% of the exchangers were male, 26% female, 1% identified as transgender. 35% were African American, 31% Caucasian, 28% were Latino. 79% report heroin as their drug of choice, and 14% report speed followed by speedballs (heroin and cocaine), cocaine, hormones, steroids etc.

One of the reasons that needle exchange is so valuable is because it reaches people who are often some of the most marginalized people in our society. For some people we are one of the only places that treat them with respect and recognize their dignity. This goes a long way. I have had people tell me that when they start by taking that step to take care of themselves by going to needle exchange, other parts of their lives start to change for the better. It can be the beginning point on a journey to affect positive change in our clients’ lives.