(EDITOR'S NOTE: DRCNet supporters come from the ranks of the progressive left, who support government funding of social services, to the libertarian right, who largely feel the government shouldn't be doing anything. We respect all of these people's viewpoints, and are happy to have them as allies. The issue of federal funding of needle exchange is one where we believe that lifting of the ban on such funding would actually make things better from both points of view. The reason is that the federal government is already funding AIDS prevention. The ban on use of such funds for needle exchange programs amounts to discrimination against drug users and those with whom they come into direct of indirect contact. Lifting the federal ban simply amounts to a deregulation of federal AIDS funding, or a deference of the federal government to state-level decision making. Hence, we see this funding issue as independent of the government vs. private sector debate; and we also believe that furthering the social acceptance of needle exchange will foster the development of a humane drug policy, which is antithetical to the prohibition that it causing so much harm. This is why we are opposing the federal needle exchange funding ban. Note that the bill discussed here would have even further-reaching discriminatory effects than the current policy.)
House Resolution 3717, which would permanently ban the use of federal funds to support needle exchange, passed the House of Representatives on April 29th and has taken its place on the calendar to be considered in the Senate. While the Senate schedule is always tentative, the bill is expected to see debate on the floor as early as this week.
This legislation, sponsored in the House by Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-NY), amends the Public Health Service Act to state that no money provided by the federal government during any fiscal year may be used "directly or indirectly" to fund the distribution of needles to intravenous drug users. It passed the House by a vote of 287 to 140.
Not surprisingly, H.R. 3717 has drawn sharp protest from needle exchange advocates. "It's economic foolishness. It's inhumanity. And we'll pay for it in the end," warned Dan Bigg of the Chicago Recovery Alliance. Ellen Goldstein from the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies concurred. "It's the worst example of ignoring science and developing policy based on political pressure," she stated this week.
"This is a particularly nasty piece of legislation for three reasons," said Chris Lanier, of the National Coalition to Save Lives Now. "First, it takes the authority for decision-making on needle exchange out of the hands of the administration and the Department of Health and Human Services. Second, it makes the ban we already have a permanent one, which would require more action by Congress to reverse. And third, the language of the bill makes it possible that funding that goes to programs for any sort of intervention could be banned."
That language -- particularly the use of the words "directly and indirectly" -- has other organizations worried as well. Jeff Jacobs, Director of Government Affairs for AIDS Action, told the Week Online, "We're very concerned about the bill language. It could mean that people are prevented even from getting treatment, something both sides agree addicts should get." Because there is not a clear idea of what constitutes "indirect" expenditure of funds on needle exchange, both Jacobs and Lanier fear that organizations which provide many other services in addition to exchange might be cut off entirely.
Another point of contention which has spurred protest from several House members is the process through which H.R. 3717 has seen debate. The bill was put directly on the House floor, without the usual committee hearings or discussion, by the House Rules Committee, of which sponsor Solomon is the chair. Following less than three hours of debate, the bill was passed on to the Senate. Now, once again without committee hearings, it has been placed on the calendar of the Senate floor for debate within the next few weeks. "What we're seeing happen," says Lanier, "is that the issue is not well understood, and yet it's acted on anyway... It allows for greater reliance on politics and less on a reasoned examination of the science."
Despite the bill's overwhelming passage in the House, support is not expected to come quite so easily in the Senate. Indicators from related legislation seem to show that only two or three votes may separate the opposing sides. This means that constituents' efforts to influence their senators may play a major role in the fate of H.R. 3717. For the next week or longer, pressure from the outside will have a vital influence on the course of this legislation, and thus on the future of funding for U.S. needle exchange. Please call your two Senators; you can reach them through the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 224-3121, or write them at United States Senate, Washington, DC 20510.