The Damage Done

Texas is the only state in the country that won’t allow needle-exchange programs for drug addicts. It’s time for that to change.

HEY, TED!” NO ANSWER. “ HEY, TED!” No answer. The lack of response didn’t surprise me, since the modest house appeared to be unoccupied. The shades were drawn and there were no obvious signs of life, but my guide kept walking along the driveway. “Hey, Ted! It’s Michael.” This time, a muffled voice behind a shuttered window asked, “Who you got with you?”

It’s okay,” Michael said, glancing at me. “He’s cool.”

Go round back,” Ted answered after some hesitation.

The back door was unlocked, leading to a small, empty room, but the door that led from that room to the rest of the house was blocked with iron burglar bars, as were all the windows, creating the appearance of an inverted jail. DeeDee, a cigarette-thin black woman in nondescript pants and T-shirt, peered around the edge of the burglar door, then unlocked it and threw her arms around Michael Lesley, a longtime volunteer with DANSE, the Dallas Area Needle-Syringe Exchange program (he asked that his real name not be used). At DeeDee’s direction, I stepped past Ted, a cinnamon-colored man in his fifties clad only in shorts. He was sitting on the edge of a king-size bed next to a bright lamp with the shade removed, poking his left leg with a syringe as he searched for a non-collapsed vein underneath the scabrous stretch of blue-black leathery skin between his knee and his ankle.

Ted was in charge here, “working the package,” selling $5 caps of heroin and heroin-cocaine “speedballs” he’d bought from a higher-level dealer and providing users a place to shoot up in relative safety. Business seemed to be good. A sturdy young black man followed us in and went into a darkened adjoining room where a grainy TV was flickering. A few minutes later a white couple who appeared to be in their mid-forties and looked as if they might have just gotten off work at Wendy’s or Pep Boys passed through and joined him.

On the other side of the big bed lay Rosetta, her skinny forearms covered by raw abscesses at least three inches wide and six inches long. Her groggy state indicated that she had been more successful than Ted at finding a vein. The space between them was littered with cigarettes, a large ashtray, several $20 bills, an elastic band, and a few loose syringes. At the head of the bed, under Rosetta’s oversight, sat a cardboard box containing what was left of the two hundred BD brand syringes that Michael had brought on his last visit. DANSE, like an estimated 185 programs around the country, supplies sterile syringes to drug addicts in exchange for used ones and serves as an important bridge to treatment and rehabilitation. The point is not to facilitate their habit—they are going to shoot up anyway—but to keep them from getting

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