Zen and the art of IV-needle reform

Every Tuesday, in an alley behind the Safeway in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, a tiny, gaunt Buddhist monk mingles with IV-drug users. Draped in saffron and cinnamon robes, Kelsang Tekchog, 51, distributes clean, free syringes and cotton swabs. He often imparts his Buddhist wisdom upon the hundreds of users—mostly punks and homeless folk—who line up. “My [former] partner got HIV through needles,” Tekchog says. “And I got it through him.”

Since 2000, he’s helped fight the virus here at the HIV Prevention Project’s decade-old needle-exchange program (NEP). A former drug user himself, Tekchog is part of a small but growing movement hoping to prick California’s regressive NEP laws: The state is one of only four that requires a prescription for syringes. Additional bureaucracy forces California exchanges to declare a state of emergency biweekly to keep them operating. IV-drug users also risk arrest if caught with needles.

This fall, California’s Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, will consider legislation to fully legalize these lifesaving programs, though he threatened a veto in June. “If we don’t change the law,” Tekchog declares, “we’ll be spending a lot more money on people with HIV and hep C in emergency rooms.”

After getting clean and leaving his partner in 1998, Tekchog enrolled in a Buddhist meditation class and adopted his current name, which means “supreme vehicle.” “Buddhism’s kept me so busy that I don’t have time to think about my HIV,” Tekchog says. “The busier I keep, the healthier I seem to stay.” Now he’s determined to spare others the indignity of scrounging for clean needles—and the danger of not finding them.

At press time, California’s legislature hopes the legalization bill will reach the governor by late August. Proponents are confident of eventual victory. Tekchog, meanwhile, appeals to an even higher authority. “Changing syringe laws would certainly help [addicts] out,” he says. “I pray for their happiness.”