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Dog Bites 

Wednesday, Jan 10 1996
The Needle and the Damage Done
Seven weeks ago, the AIDS and harm-reduction communities were rocked by the untimely death of UCSF researcher John Watters. Watters had won renown with studies that showed how needle exchanges slowed HIV and hepatitis transmission among injecting drug users (see "Sudden Death," Bay View, Dec. 20). When the Coroner's Office began investigating the death as a possible drug overdose, Watters' associates chorused that any drugs involved would turn out to be legit.

But on Dec. 20 the coroner released a final determination of the cause of death: "acute morphine-type alkaloid poisoning" -- an accidental overdose probably of morphine or street heroin, according to a Coroner's Office investigator. The overdose caused pulmonary congestion; in effect, Watters' lungs filled with fluid and he quickly drowned.

More mystery: Although wine bottles and powdered cocaine were found nearby, neither alcohol nor cocaine were detected in his system, and a syringe also present tested negative for any drug substance.

However, there was hydromorphone (Dilaudid) in his urine. Dilaudid is an addictive painkiller prescribed for people already tolerant of high-dose narcotics, such as cancer and trauma patients. In large doses -- or in combination with another narcotic-type drug -- Dilaudid can kill people as well as pain. Despite its restricted status, Dilaudid is widely diverted to street sale.

Unfortunately, the exact drug responsible for Watters' death can't be determined since the body quickly turns all opiates (codeine, morphine, heroin) into the same alkaloid compound, which was found in Watters' blood.

Friends and colleagues are left to wonder: Did Watters play too hard with the drugs whose users he studied?

"I don't think there's anybody that knows about that," says Alex Kral, Watters' colleague at UCSF. "It could be a prescription opiate, it could be a nonprescription one. ... It's feasible he was using drugs [but that] I didn't know about it -- and I don't know anybody who knew about it," he says, sounding weary of treading this patch of ground.

"I don't really know what to make of it," Kral concludes. "We're really not any further along."

Archival Pursuit
A band of Examiner free-lancers have enlisted the National Writers Union in their campaign against the compulsory agreement all non-staff Ex writers must now sign. Examiner free-lancer Mia Amato says that 10 frequent contributors to the Ex's Habitat, Epicure, and Real Estate sections have refused to sign the pact. The sticking points for Amato and the others are many: The agreement gives the Ex electronic rights in perpetuity to material published in the paper (the exclusive rights expire in 60 days, after which the writer can resell the work); it allows the Ex to use writers' names and likenesses in promoting their material by the Ex or "any authorized syndicator"; it rules out additional payment for republication; and it contains no provision for a kill fee. Upon discovering that the Gate (the Chronicle/Examiner Website) had archived their stories without their consent, both Amato and fellow Examiner contributor Janet Hazen demanded that their articles be removed. George Shirk, content manager of the Gate, says the Gate's archives were shuttered for a week in December to accommodate the requests of free-lancers who had not signed the agreement and wanted their copy deleted from the site. "The main issue is the electronic rights," says Amato. "People want to buy my on-line rights. I'm not going to give them to the Hearst Corporation." Pamela Brunger Scott, the Ex's managing editor-operations, calls the agreement "a starting place" in the evolving issue of electronic rights.

By Paul D. Kretkowski, Jack Shafer


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