Text AA

The Point is The Point

Remembering Dave Purchase

davenallanIf you told Dave Purchase that he was a pioneer he’d probably lean forward and say “speak up, partner, can’t hear you, I’ve got a pie in my ear.” If you insisted, he’d probably add that we’re all pioneers, to not doubt that we are correct in what we do, and we do god’s work and anyone insisting otherwise has their heads in a place that only your gastroenterologist should be visiting once every 5 years if you’re over 50.

Nonetheless, if anyone does deserve the pioneer accolade it is Dave Purchase. He started the first public syringe exchange program in Tacoma, Washington back in 1988 (Jon Parker was also doing exchange on the east coast at the same time but without the imprimatur of health authorities). Dave saw the need for a beleaguered community to come together, celebrate, exchange information and receive mutual support, so he organized the first North American Syringe Exchange Convention (NASEC) in 1990; 7 programs were there. By 1991 there were a few dozen programs and in 1992 amfAR funded the North American Syringe Exchange Network (NASEN) with Dave at the helm.

NASEN had several critical components. For one, it provided start up kits. This meant that if you wanted to start an exchange, you didn’t have to worry about figuring out how to find needles and supplies – you simply called NASEN, got a starter kit, and started exchanging. NASEN organized the annual NASEC convention, – Tacoma, Boston, San Juan, Santa Cruz, Baltimore and so on – it’s where we all met and made love. NASEN created a buyer’s club to get the cheapest possible price on syringes. NASEN provided the grants program whereby if you successfully got your program up and running and survived the first few months, you could apply to NASEN for a few thousand dollars to keep doing the work; it was never enough for salaries but it was enough for supplies. The grants were hand written at times, they were late, they were typed on typewriters, they were cut and pasted from the previous year’s application with the same spurious but unnecessary statistics, they were written by researchers or people with know-how on occasion but mostly, they were written by people who had never written anything previously. If the conference was the introduction to public speaking, then the grants program was the introduction to the world of funding.  Dave, through NASEN, created the syringe exchange movement in the US. He never lost his vision that the grassroots needed respect and support.

davendeniseBut what really sealed the deal was that NASEN was Dave on the end of a cell phone. Dave who knew everything you were going through and who knew the answers. Dave who commiserated and calmed you down. Dave who made you laugh. Dave who recognized that what you had going on was central to the HIV epidemic. Dave who could get you out of a mess and/or get you the extra supplies. Dave who would fly down or show up and stand shoulder to shoulder with you.

Dave was a charismatic speaker. Not in the preachy way of rousing an audience, but in the common sense, down home way of getting the point across. The point was the point and there was not a need to elaborate. We didn’t want the whole pie just our fair share of a bigger pie. He broke things down in the simplest ways so that even an idiot bureaucrat could not have a comeback that meant a damn. He was the master of the shaggy dog story. He became the master of the koan. Sometimes there was no punch line but there was wisdom. He was always the grey beard – aged and ageless and wise.

Dave was also a member of the Harm Reduction Working Group which became the Harm Reduction Coalition and thus he was one of our founders. Dave had the capacity to make everyone he came across feel included, relevant and vital. He was equal opportunity and didn’t class one person as more significant or important than another. Actually, that’s probably wrong – if you ran a small syringe exchange program then you were perhaps more important than someone who ran a large syringe exchange program because you needed more loving and support. He was a person with the capacity to do that. He embodied warmth and friendship.

Dave was my friend for a long time. I can hear his greeting and I can hear the way he chuckled when he talked. We saw each other through marriages, illness and deaths. We fought over nothing and we partnered over big things. I can’t stand all that crap about how great the US is or how great Americans are but if anyone has ever stood for being the incarnation of a great American, it is Dave Purchase. It is a cliché but he was cut from a unique set of cloth. He was a great American. He was an outstanding human being. He changed the world.


  • Listen to an interview with Dave here.
  • Read a tribute to Dave from Nick Crofts here.
  • Read a tribute to Dave from Housing Works here.
  • Read the New York Times obituary here.
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