Friday, March 03, 2006

Junkies Save the Day

One approach to reducing the spread of AIDs in Baltimore is the use of a needle exchange program. The program provides drug addicts with new, clean needles once a week in exchange for their old, dirty needles. Apparently addicts, in their craving for drugs, will use any needle regardless of how dull or AIDs-infected it has become.

Malcolm Gladwell relates in his book The Tipping Point about two problems the needle exchange program faced and how they were overcome. The first problem is that drug addicts are not usually organized and reliable people. How could the program directors make sure the addicts even showed up at all? Secondly, addicts use about one needle per day, so meeting once a week would be far from sufficient.

It turns out that these problems were solved and the program was a success, but it was not due to the hard work of doctors in Baltimore. It was because of the remarkable entrepreneurial spirit. As Gladwell writes:

...what [the doctors] found was that a handful of addicts were coming by each week with knapsacks bulging with 300 or 400 dirty needles at a time, which is obviously far more than they were using themselves. These men were then going back to the street and selling the clean needles for one dollar each. The van, in other words, was a kind of syringe wholesaler. The real retailers were these handfuls of men...who were prowling around the street and shooting galleries, picking up dirty needles, and them making a modest living on the clean needles they received in exchange.
These addicts were doing what the doctors could never do -- provide clean needs to those in need -- and it was only from the incentive and information provided by prices that it was possible.

These addicts, acting as Kirznerian entrepreneurs, had a noted impact on the lives of junkies in the Baltimore area. Here is yet another example of how the profit mechanism can lead selfish individuals to better their communities.

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