Needle Exchange Action May Be Imminent

Last spring at the National African American Drug Policy Coalition summit here in Washington, the question was asked of Donna Christian-Christensen (Congressional Delegate from Guam, the closest thing the territories have to US Representatives), a physician and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Health Braintrust, what the prospects were for repealing the ban on use of federal AIDS grant funds to support needle exchange. Her answer was, "We're going to give it a good try." I took that to mean "it's not going to happen this time." The issue has made some progress however, at least as it affects us here in the District of Columbia, where a particularly infamous part of the annual appropriations bill prevents DC from spending even its own locally-collected tax funds on needle exchange appears to be on its way to getting repealed, thanks to positive action by a House subcommittee that drafted the new appropriations bill. I know better than to take it as a given that repeal will make it all the way through. But it is looking pretty good, and at the PreventionWorks! anniversary party this evening -- attended by new PW executive director Ken Vail -- AIDS Action lobbyist Bill McColl informed the crowd that it could hit the floor within a few days. Earlier this year we reported that Hillary Clinton was noncommittal about lifting the ban during a videotaped exchange at a private forum with prominent AIDS activists. The exchange was fascinating; after several pointed back-and-forths with Housing Works executive director Charles King, Sen. Clinton directly acknowledged that it was political concerns only that accounted for her position (though the kinds of concerns that can't necessarily be dismissed offhand). Sen. Obama, by contrast, had stated his support for lifting the ban. This week Clinton took the plunge and made strong pro-needle exchange promises in a campaign statement on AIDS funding. What would ultimately happen with this in a Clinton presidency, or any Democratic presidency, is probably hard to predict -- politics is still politics. But the fact that the Democratic candidates are lining up to support the issue has McColl feeling cautiously optimistic that the Democratic Congress won't drop the ball on the DC language at least. And it's encouraging for all of us about the long-term. The federal needle exchange restriction came to a boil during the Clinton administration, when the findings needed to lift the ban -- needle exchange doesn't increase drug use, but does reduce the spread of HIV -- were made by the administration, but not acted on. Some advocates believe that if Donna Shalala had been on a certain Air Force One flight, instead of Barry McCaffrey, that it would have happened. It took a change in Congress to even get the issue back onto the radar screen; more may be needed to actually get the law changed. Still, let's keep our fingers crossed for the DC ban to be lifted, maybe even by the end of the year. Assuming that happens: Let's Do Heroin! (That was sarcasm, in case anyone didn't realize.)
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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