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"Godfather" of Needle Exchange Dies

Dave Purchase started exchanging needles on a street corner in 1989 and became a national leader of the movement.


Dave Purchase was devoted to helping
addicts. Photo via

By Ben Feuerherd


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Dave Purchase, the “godfather” of the American needle exchange, died on January 21. He was 73. Purchase died of complications of pneumonia in Tacoma Washington, the city where he began handing out clean syringes to combat AIDS among drug users 24 years ago. Purchase began his needle exchange operation on a street corner, on a borrowed television tray, steps away from a heroin den. “My dad was a biker, with the big beard, the black leather jacket,” Purchase’s son tells the New York Times. “Because of that look, he started assisting a friend who was a drug counselor who would send him around town when clients went missing—into bars, down an alley.”  Within five months, he had given out 13,000 clean needles (in exchange for used ones), most of which he purchased out-of-pocket. His grassroots needle exchange was one of the first in the country, and the media and public health advocates took notice. “Whether or not he was literally the first to hand out syringes to stop AIDS, he was undoubtedly the godfather of needle exchange in America,” says Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “He was a mentor and adviser to activists and public health workers around the world.”

By 1993 Purchase’s operation moved off the street corners and out of the alleys of Tacoma, gaining support from local health agencies. In cooperation with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, Purchase started the Point Defiant AIDS Project, and the the North American Syringe Exchange Network. The network, which is still in operation today, buys needles at wholesale and sells them to smaller needle exchanges throughout the US. It is now responsible for distributing 15 million syringes annually.

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