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Feature: Congress Moves to End Ban on DC Needle Exchange Funding

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #489)
Consequences of Prohibition
Drug War Issues
Politics & Advocacy

A nine-year-old measure barring the District of Colombia from spending its own funds on needle exchange programs (NEPs) instituted by conservative Republican lawmakers was removed from the DC appropriations bill Tuesday. Led by House Subcommittee of Financial Services and General Government chair Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), the subcommittee voted to excise the language from the bill, a key step in allowing the District to enact the proven harm reduction measure in an effort to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne infectious diseases.

Ron Daniels at PreventionWorks! van, Washington (screen shot of recent ''slide show'')
Although it has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the country, with as much as a third of it linked to injection drug use, Washington, DC is the only city in the country expressly prohibited from spending money for NEPs. According to the North American Syringe Exchange Association, more than 200 NEPs are currently operating in 36 states.

"My basic principle in this bill is that the federal government should not dictate to the city how to manage its own affairs or spend its own money," said Serrano in a Tuesday statement. "Therefore, you will find that we have removed or changed riders that have been in past bills that closely prescribed to the city what it should or should not do."

"This is a huge step in helping to reduce HIV and AIDS in Washington, DC," said Naomi Long, director of the Washington Metro office for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We are pleased that Congress decided to stop playing politics with the lives of intravenous drug users in DC."

"This is extremely important," said Channing Wickham, director of the Washington AIDS Partnership. "About a third of AIDS cases here in the District are related to injection drug use. This is not a pro-drug move; it's a public health move," he told Drug War Chronicle. "There are numerous studies that show not only that giving drug users access to clean needles reduces the spread of HIV infections, but also that people in such programs get access to drug treatment and medical care. It's a win-win situation," he said.

"If they actually lift the ban, that'll be great," said Ron Daniels of Prevention Works!, a privately-funded NEP that arose in response to the 1998 federal ban on funding. "If they don't, our hands are tied. The people we are serving now are only the tip of the iceberg," he told the Chronicle from the mobile van the group uses to take clean needles to drug users. "We're only seeing about a third of the people we know are injection drug users. They have got to do something to stop this epidemic."

Even with the limitations imposed by having to seek out private funding, Prevention Works! managed to distribute more than 236,000 needles and had regular contact with some 2,000 injection drug users last year.

popular needle exchange logo
While the DC appropriations bill is still in the early stages, the subcommittee vote this week was a critical step, said Bill Piper, director of government relations for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This was the key vote," said Piper. "Committee chairs pick their battles carefully, and the fact that Serrano went ahead and did this suggests he thinks he can take this all the way. In the full committee, the Democrats will generally get behind whatever the subcommittee decided, and on the floor, the presumption will be against amending bills against the wishes of the committee."

That doesn't mean ideologically driven opponents will give up without a fight. Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KA), the man who inserted the ban in 1998, was still at it this week. Apparently ignorant of the mountain of scientific evidence establishing the effectiveness of NEPs in reducing the transmission of HIV/AIDS and other diseases, Tiahrt claimed that "needle exchange programs have been proven in many studies to be ineffective and a threat to the surrounding community, especially the children."

That prompted a Wednesday visit to Tiahrt's office by the Drug Policy Alliance, which hand-delivered numerous studies proving the effectiveness of NEPs. "Rep. Tiahrt's claims that syringe exchange programs don't work is similar to claiming the world is flat," said Piper. "We want him to have the information so he doesn't continue to embarrass himself and, more importantly, sabotage this life-saving measure."

With the subcommittee vote, DC is now closer than ever to being able to finance NEPs, and the measure will pass, Piper predicted. "I think this is one we will win," he said. "Not without a fight, of course, but the stars are aligned, everyone in DC wants this, and in the end, the DC syringe ban will be repealed."

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

It's sad that a city with the highest rates of HIV infection would consider making it yet easier for addicts to get drugs.

Who ever started the myth that addicts care if their needle is clean or dirty. The only needle an addict is looking for is one filled with enough heroin to get his/her next high.

We need to stop operating under the "NiFong" Syndrome which is simply that even though someone like NiFong knows something is harmful---the continue to practice it allowing harm to continue and lives to be ruined or ended!

Fri, 06/08/2007 - 6:16pm Permalink
borden (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

You can say these things, but the quality and quantity of the scientific evidence proving you completely wrong is literally overwhelming.

This page on the Dogwood Center web site hasn't been updated in awhile, but that only means the evidence now is even greater. At the time needle exchange was eight for eight -- eight major federal reviews of the research found that needle exchange DOES decrease the spread of HIV and DOES NOT increase drug use.

How exactly would handing out sterile syringes make it easier for addicts to get drugs?!?!?!?!?!?!? That doesn't even make sense.

I'm always amazed when people make drug users out to all be exactly the same (no group of people is all exactly the same, that's what they call "prejudice" or "stereotyping"), or when people who obviously haven't gone near a needle exchange purport to understand how things must happen there. I've visited needle exchange sites, by the way -- and yes there were people there, yes they were doing what they need to to be safe from disease, yes they were for the most part bringing needles back too and not just taking them. A few of them were even wearing suits and went back to their high-powered jobs when they were done.

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC

Sat, 06/09/2007 - 1:45am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

"We need to stop operating under the "NiFong" Syndrome which is simply that even though someone like NiFong knows something is harmful---the continue to practice it allowing harm to continue and lives to be ruined or ended!?

As the GEICO caveman says, "HUH?"

Mon, 06/11/2007 - 2:11pm Permalink
Petra (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

what an ignorent opinion. You couldn't even put your name under the nonsense. Remember, if you cannot stand up for it - don't say it. And, please, do some research because obviously you don't know anything about harm reduction and users.

Petra Boston M.P.A.
Road Home Leadership Team
Addict in harm reduction

Thu, 08/13/2009 - 4:27am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

With the Nations Capital alarming statistics when it comes to the battle to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS it will take all the ammunition available like clean syringes. It has nothing to do with making it more easy for getting drugs..........
It is like thinking passing out condoms will promote sex.

I wonder were we would be if there was a federal band that would prohibit the Nations Capital to fund Condom programs
because it would make it easier for People to get sex.....

Once that the District of Columbia will be able to fund needle exchange program, this will be a critical time for participants to allow them access to services, PreventionWorks will be able to open doors for a comprehensive continium of care for the community it serves.

The people in the greatest need of basic human services and rights. Like the fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, neighbors, and friends, from elders to youth, all in which are people from families just like yours and mine.

Sun, 06/10/2007 - 11:44am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

It is difficult for science to argue with belief. Science has repeatedly shown that syrnige exchange lowers the incidence of infection and does not lead to more people injecting drugs. It is about time that Congress lets the people of D.C. be able to take better care of themselves.

When will the Federal Ban on Funding Syringe Exchange be lifted do that states may use federal money for their syringe exchange programs?

Sun, 06/10/2007 - 11:18pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The goal of a needle exchange program is first and foremost to decrease the spread of HIV, hepatitis c and other blood borne diseases that threaten public health at large. If these diseases did not exist, it is highly unlikely that needle exchange programs would have ever come into being. They evolved out of the need to decrease the risk of deadly disease to the public, including injection drug users, their friends, families and associates, not to mention the health care workers that attend to infected persons in emergency rooms, the EMS workers who respond to emergencies, and the police officers who down. Lastly, keep in mind that one of the largest contributors to pediatric HIV is from mothers who were injection drug users, or whose partners were/are injection drug users.

Needle exchange programs do not help make it easier for addicts to find drugs or continue their addictions. They do not offer money, contacts to dealers, fancy sneakers, or goods that can be sold for cash to score drugs. Needle exchange programs not only offer addicts the tools necessary to stay cliean, but more importnatly, they provide a chance to have a conversation with a health care worker about how to take steps to protect themselves and their families, now to inject less frequently, and how to get into treatment when the system is stacked against them.

A recent study by Johns Hopkins University is the most recent of many that published results stating that needle exchange program clients are more likely to enter and stay in treatment than those who don't. For any who doubt the effect needle exchange programs have upon disease or drug use, I can ony encourage you to do the research yourself. You'll soon find that NEPs are effective at fighting disease, and often at reducing drug use.

As for the children, who are you talking about? Those born with HIV, those who lose their parents or siblings to HIV, or those who contract it themselves?

Mon, 06/11/2007 - 1:41am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Two things come to mind.

The above statement about science not debating belief is a capstone to all discussion about the situation. The opponents of needle exchange do not care about science or evidence, just their emotional responses.

With regard to the encouragement of drug use by these programs, I unfortunately must say that involvement does indeed allow the addict to find additional sources. They are vetted when the user sees the fellow addict using a needle and scores a new connection, as few undercover cops will seek to cover their tracks with this behavior. (pun intended) NA and AA meetings serve the same purpose to a lesser degree. A caveat, however; more than one cop has attended a NA meeting to get a list of prospects. Sometimes hugs are just a way to find a place to put the knife...

Mon, 06/11/2007 - 2:07pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm heavily involved in syringe exchange in the UK, mainly form a monitoring perspective. In the 1980's even the most optimistic predictions suggested 50% of injecting drug users (IDUs) would be HIV positive within ten years if the then current practices continued. So, amongst a raft of other measures, Syringe Exchange programs were started. Ten years later approximately 1% of IDUs are believed to be HIV positive. That's a LOT of people saved and a HUGE saving on the healthcare budget. Right now the biggest problem is Hep C - and make no mistake this one gets around far more than HIV does! Syringe Exchange makes a huge impact on this and needs to keep doign so. Syringe Exchange is not about drug use its about disease control and public health. Thats the point of harm reduction...if all you see is drug use you need your eyes tested, or perhaps just opened.

The list of countries and studies that have more than demonstrated the efficacy of syringe exchange and other harm reduction measures, without a concommitant increase in local drug use, is now so large it's barely worth mentioning. If you're the type of person who denies a mountain exists it doesn't matter if it's Ben Nevis or Mount Everest - you will still deny it.

The American people are characterised in Europe as being, amongst other things, extremely paranoid. And this is exactly the kind of thing that leads us to that conclusion. Rejection of a Harm Reduction strategy is based on fear and ignorance, much like the original demonising of cannabis (not "marijuana" - thats a slang term). I've seen the data that the US government has used to state cannabis is 10, 20, 30 times stronger (depending on which report you read) than 20 years ago and even their own raw data doesnt support this!

This is an information age, people - especially in a technologically advanced country like the US - have access to information resources unlike anything that has gone before. If you allow your fears to guide your policy and try to support it with half truths, vague "facts" or downright lies you WILL be foubnd out and you will lose credibility instantly. By all means argue against Harm Reduction if thats what you believe but do it from an honest perspective before the people stop listening to everything you have to say, regardless of what it is.

Thu, 06/14/2007 - 4:56am Permalink

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