A compromise version of the Washington, DC Appropriations Bill, which would have allowed clinics to run privately funded syringe exchange programs without losing federal funding was approved by a House-Senate conference committee earlier this week, but that compromise appears to be dead. President Clinton vetoed that bill for unrelated reasons. Yesterday (11/3), the House passed new syringe exchange language that would extend the status quo of the past year, which forbids any payment of public funds to any "individual or entity" that practices exchange. This morning (11/4), President Clinton vowed to veto the appropriations bill (H.R. 3194) once again, this time in opposition to the restrictive exchange provision.
In indicating that the President would veto the newest version of the bill, administration officials told the Washington Post that the syringe exchange language "undercuts the progress that has been made" in that area. The current bill is the fifth version of the current appropriations measure.
The bill would also overturn the District's medicinal marijuana initiative, approved by voters in November '98 by a margin of 69-31%.
In practical terms, the syringe exchange language is aimed at the Whitman-Walker clinic, a comprehensive health services organization, which ran the city's only exchange program until last year. For the past twelve months, syringe exchange in the District has been carried out by Prevention Works!, a small, privately-funded entity. Prevention Works! was established in the wake of last year's appropriations bill, and is funded in part by the Drug Policy Foundation.
Michael Cover, a spokesman for the Whitman Walker Clinic, told The Week Online that the institution is prepared to offer syringe exchange programs to the extent allowable by law. "We would, of course coordinate that (syringe exchange) with what Prevention Works! is doing, but if allowable, we plan to insure that these services are available to those who need them in the District."
In addition to taking dirty syringes out of circulation and providing clean equipment to IV drug users to stem the spread of AIDS/HIV and Hepatitis, exchange programs present a gateway to health care and drug treatment for addicts who are otherwise driven underground by the threat of arrest.
"The main goals of syringe exchange," Cover told The Week Online, "are, number one, to keep people alive and get them access to appropriate drug treatment. Number two, to provide them with access to health care, including, if necessary, medical treatment for HIV and AIDS."
But many lawmakers see syringe exchange as a threat to the principles of zero-tolerance drug policies.
Representative James Istook (R-OK) took to the floor of the House on Wednesday to skewer the idea of public funding for any institution that practices syringe exchange. Citing laws against possession of drug paraphernalia and his view that the provision of clean syringes enables people to use drugs, Istook said that Congress has a moral responsibility not to allow the "intermingling" of public funds with monies to be used for exchange.