A red-tape one-two punch downed a needle exchange in Cleveland, Ohio, but Ken Vail, 38, says his street fleet’s not out. City officials stopped the syringe swap run by the Xchange Point, a harm-reduction program that opened last September and, in three months, handed out 12,000 condoms and 800 bleach kits, and traded 931 used needles for clean ones. “After many frustrating negotiations with the city, we decided to begin operating the exchange without approval in October,” said founding director Vail. “I couldn’t stand by and withhold a tool that could save lives.”

Following an editorial against Vail’s needle exchange last December in The Plain Dealer, city officials pounced, alleging that the swap didn’t comply with the city’s 1995 emergency-order needle-distribution regs. A month after Vail complied, officials revised the order to keep needles nixed. Now Cleveland exchanges can be launched only by medical facilities at least five years old. The Xchange Point is non-medical. After his staff threatened with arrest, Vail stopped swapping syringes, leaving Cleveland with only one exchange.

In a letter to the Cleveland health department, Dr. Peter Lurie, an expert who supervises the Xchange program, wrote: “The changes in the emergency order are transparent attempts to preclude the Xchange Point from operating. Were these requirements implemented nationally, practically all exchanges in the country would have to shut down.”

At presstime, after Vail had filed an injunction to lift the block, the city tentatively OK’d his needle giveaway. And in an extraordinary reversal, The Plain Dealer ran an editorial in support of exchanges. As Vail said, “It’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission.”