Carlos Franco is a 66-year-old retired rehabilitation specialist who regularly risks being thrown in jail to help low-income intravenous drug users. “There’s always been a stigma about helping drug users,” he told the Miami New Times. “Legislators are so disconnected from what happens on the street. These are people’s brothers, sisters, and children.”
Franco, who was born in Cuba and emigrated to Miami when he was 12, is neither a dealer nor a user. Instead, he visits Wynwood, Overtown, and downtown Miami as often as he can supplying addicts with fresh needles, in an attempt to reduce their risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis C, which comes from sharing needles.
Franco’s mission is born out of his own personal experience. He had a girlfriend who was addicted to heroin, and whose life he saw fall apart over the years. One day, in 1990 – at the tail-end of a decade in which HIV and AIDS had rocked the United States – he saw her share a needle with 10 other people, even though he tried to warn her of the risks. From that moment forward, he knew he had to do something. Though he couldn’t personally get all those struggling with addiction the rehab help they needed, he could at least help them access clean needles and reduce their risk of disease.
There was only one problem: needle-exchange programs were banned in Florida.
In Florida, as well as several other states, handing out syringes to addicts is considered delivering drug paraphernalia, meaning that what he is doing is a third-degree felony. So instead, Franco has been applying for grants to fund needle purchases, soliciting donations, or simply buying them out of pocket. He tells the New Times it’s a miracle he hasn’t been arrested while distributing tens of thousands of needles in Miami.
More than ever, what Franco is doing is needed. Miami New Times reports that Miami-Dade and Broward have the highest number of new HIV cases in the nation. If there were a needle exchange program in Miami, Jackson Memorial Hospital could save $11.4 million. In the meantime, Franco will continue taking donations or buy needles out of his own pocket.
To learn more about what a typical day of delivering needles is like for Franco, click here.