LEAD: Jon C. Parker spent a recent sunny Saturday morning doing what he does most weekends - breaking the law by handing out clean hypodermic needles to drug abusers, hoping to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Jon C. Parker spent a recent sunny Saturday morning doing what he does most weekends - breaking the law by handing out clean hypodermic needles to drug abusers, hoping to prevent the spread of AIDS.
One stop was a small park in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. A short, muscular firefighter from New Jersey got up from a bench and pulled out two crumpled dollar bills for a needle. Mr. Parker waved the money aside.
"You're giving them free?" the man said, tipping back the cap on his head in amazement. "That's great!" Then he cautioned: "You can get arrested for this if the cops come by." Mr. Parker, who has already been arrested, said: "Someday it may be legal. But a lot of people are dying because of a stupid law."
Mr. Parker, a former drug addict and now working on a master's degree in public health at Yale University, has been called the Johnny Appleseed of needles.
His distribution project, aimed at preventing users from sharing needles and thereby passing the AIDS virus among themselves, is one of a handful of its kind in the nation.
Mr. Parker defies the laws of several states, which specify that hypodermic needles can be issued only with a doctor's prescription, and he has helped distribute about 50,000 illegally since early 1987. He travels a weekly circuit that has branched out from Boston, where he lives, to Providence, New Haven, New York, Jersey City and Philadelphia.
He was arrested in Boston, where he is to go on trial in January and face one year in prison if convicted. His prosecution comes amid a rising debate about the efficacy of free needle programs and questions about whether they actually prevent AIDS infection or contribute to drug abuse.
Drug users and their mates are the fastest growing part of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Once a week Mr. Parker moves among them, on the streets and in shooting galleries up and down the coast, handing out packets that contain bleach to sterilize needles after use and condoms to prevent sexual transmission of AIDS.
Mr. Parker has turned his crusade into a thesis for his master's degree in public health.
Health experts have offered to testify in his behalf, including Dr. George A. Lamb, the AIDS adviser to Mayor Raymond Flynn of Boston.
'I'm Trying to Stop AIDS'
Mr. Parker's planned defense is simple: "I'm trying to save lives. I'm trying to stop AIDS. We don't condone drugs, but we're trying to keep people AIDS-free till they get into drug treatment."
Needle programs are flourishing in other nations that have much smaller AIDS problems, including Canada, Britain, Australia and the Netherlands. In Amsterdam 700,000 needles a year are being distributed.
"Around the world, syringe exchanges are expanding rapidly from pilot programs to large-scale distribution - except the United States," said Don C. DesJarlais, a member of the Federal AIDS commission and an authority on drug abuse who works at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan. He said Mr. Parker's approach "is the way many syringe exchanges got started - by somebody who felt strongly just going out and doing it."
Only a few small needle programs are being tried in this country.
Just two are clearly legal: a privately financed program that finally began this month in Portland, Ore., after a protracted delay, and a limited year-old pilot project at the New York City Health Department.
The legality of a municipal needle program in Tacoma, Wash., is being contested in a civil suit. A project called Prevention Point in San Francisco is unsanctioned, although the local public health director, Dr. David Werdegar, has urged amending state laws to permit a government program.
Proponents cite studies showing that - contrary to fears and objections from critics - free needles do not increase drug use. Indicators like arrests, overdose cases, dropouts from treatment programs and new applicants for treatment remained unchanged.
Research also indicates that recipients in needle programs tend to take precautions against AIDS and are less likely to become infected. In Amsterdam, AIDS infection among drug users has stabilized for two years, and new cases of hepatitis B, which spreads the same way, dropped 75 percent.
But a backlash against the fledgling efforts in this country has developed among some American politicians, law-enforcement officials and leaders from minority communities already ravaged by drugs.
President Bush opposes free needles. In a provision sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina, Congress has voted to bar Federal funds for needles or even bleach for addicts. Massachusetts' governor and legislature blocked requests from Boston's Mayor and City Council for a needle experiment. In New York, Mayor-elect David N. Dinkins has vowed to disband the project that has drawn 270 of the city's estimated 200,000 intravenous drug abusers.
Waiting Lists for Treatment
Although experts on addiction say drug treatment is the best answer to the problem, addicts face months-long waiting lists. Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, New York City's departing Health Commissioner, argues that even if treatment were expanded to take all applicants, clean needles could still benefit those who declined treatment.
Despite the opposition, Mr. Parker continues his renegade program.
He has loosely organized 60 volunteers into the National AIDS Brigade, based in Boston and New Haven. Their underground network buys syringes where it is legal to do so without prescriptions and then smuggles them into cities where they are contraband.
There are no data showing that outlawing the syringes succeeds in reducing drug use, but it does inadvertently cause needle sharing. Addicts often borrow or rent syringes to avoid arrest for possession and to conserve money for drugs, instead of spending up to $5 for a black market syringe. When purchased legally in bulk, the syringes cost less than a quarter apiece.
"Jon Parker is an original," said Dr. Alvin Novick, chairman in New Haven of the Mayor's Task Force on AIDS. "He combines genuine knowledge of the street drug scene, from his own life, with a brilliant mind and an extraordinary commitment to helping addicts. I'm one of his disciples." 'It's a Simplistic Approach'
But Mr. Parker's opponents say that good intentions aside, he is sadly misguided. Boston's City Counselor, James M. Kelly, said, "He's breaking the law and abetting illegal drug use."
The Rev. Reginald Williams at the Addicts for Rehabilitation Center in Harlem said there was no control to prevent free needles from being shared or even sold for more drugs. "To me it's a simplistic approach to a very complex problem," he said. "Free needles send the wrong message. There's a fine line between drug education and promotion, and this crosses the line."
As a drug user in his youth, Mr. Parker says he was arrested about 30 times, was convicted 20 times and spent two years in reformatory schools, jails and prisons. His crimes were nonviolent, mostly breaking into pharmacies for drugs and needles. "They called me the Rexall King," he said. Only the threat of a long sentence forced him into treatment.
Now he says he has been drug-free for 15 years. "Thank God, when I was shooting up, AIDS was not around," he said.
Mr. Parker, 35, slips between the worlds of Yale's Ivy League campus and a drug "shooting gallery" several blocks away in New Haven's ghetto.
A Defense of Necessity
Mr. Parker, who has bushy blond hair and a ponytail tucked under his collar, works nights as a part-time commercial fisherman to help meet living expenses and buy more needles. His personal finances are chaotic, and he acknowledges his rent is a year in arrears.
His Boston arrest was on a misdemeanor charge. His lawyer, Arnold I. Abelow, said: "You really have to admire what Jon does. In legal terms, he will use the defense of necessity, committing a smaller wrong to prevent a greater evil."
Charles Eaton, who runs New York's needle program, said: "I can understand what he's doing and why he's doing it. On the Eastern Seaboard, what is the alternative?"
The prospect of returning to jail does not deter Mr. Parker. "I'm willing to go to jail," he said. "I've been there before, and I'll just continue my work on the inside."
Cruising Manhattan's streets in an aging automobile a week ago, Mr. Parker spotted a likely corner on Houston Street, pulled over and approached a man. Speaking softly but urgently, he said: "What's up? Got any old works to trade for a clean one?"
In exchange for new needles, he collects old ones in plastic jugs.
Almost instantly, half a dozen people appeared. "Is he giving out needles -all right!" said one man.
"Is this legal?" asked another. "Can they arrest me?"
Somebody else, lacking an old needle to trade, rolled up his sleeves to show the tracks and said, "Look here, do I qualify?"
Next was Williamsburg in Brooklyn, where a man named Carlos produced two used needles from the pocket of his leather jacket, then raised his hat to pull out a third. Mr. Parker and two neighborhood helpers picked up needles littering the ground under a street overpass. They stepped carefully to avoid the piles left by cocaine addicts whose injections cause involuntary defecation.
Visit to Shooting Gallery
After a break at Gleason's gym by the waterfront, Mr. Parker drove off to New Haven to a cramped rear apartment where addicts go to shoot up and socialize.
People constantly streamed in and out of the apartment, which belongs to a man called Kelly. Ailing from AIDS, he moves slowly.
"This is my home, not just a shooting gallery," Kelly said. "We're family here. It's a safe house. A lot of us want to step off, you know, get out of the game altogether. But where do we go?"
Later Mr. Parker called the firefighter from New Jersey. He had tested negative for the AIDs virus and wanted to stay that way. He volunteered to join the needle network and help others. "I know hundreds of guys in Jersey," he said.