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Faced with the unbridled spread of AIDS among drug users in Los Angeles, Mayor Richard Riordan declared a state of emergency and asked the police department to allow illegal hypodermic needle exchanges to operate freely.

Critics contend that needle exchanges promote drug use, but Riordan said he places more value on government studies that show such programs save lives by slowing the spread of AIDS.Dirty needles passed from one addict to the next could carry the AIDS virus and with it the potential "to cause extraordinary loss of life," Riordan said.

In signing the declaration Tuesday, however, Riordan warned that all needle exchanges in Los Angeles must agree to do more than swap needles.

They will be required to show drug users where to get addiction treatment and how to avoid being infected in other ways by the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, Riordan said.

The most recent county statistics show that injected drug use accounted for nearly 6.3 percent of all AIDS cases in Los Angeles County, or 1,546 people out of 24,630 as of March 31.

Los Angeles follows San Francisco, Berkeley, Calif., and other cities in authorizing needle exchanges.