Congress Lifts Washington, DC Syringe Funding Ban

Press Release December 25, 2007
Media Contact

Naomi Long at (202) 669-6071 or Bill Piper at (202) 669-6430

President Bush signed an omnibus spending bill today that includes a provision that lifts a nine-year ban that has prohibited the nation’s capital from spending its own (non-federal) money on syringe exchange programs. Elimination of this ban clears the way for the Government of the District of Columbia to proceed with plans to infuse $1 million into local syringe exchange efforts.

This is the first time in nearly a decade that a syringe exchange program in the District of Columbia will receive public funds to carry out vital efforts to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C among people who inject drugs. Lifting the local funding ban could not have come at a more critical time. A DC government authored report released in late November determined that Washington, DC has the highest HIV/AIDS rate of all cities in the nation. Moreover, nearly 21% of all cases of HIV transmission in the District are due to injection drug use.

“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 D.C. at a time when the District is suffering from an HIV/AIDS crisis.”

The local funding ban on syringe exchange in Washington, DC was originally imposed in 1998 by the Republican-led Congress. This ban was maintained in annual appropriations to DC until Democrats regained control of Congress this year. Efforts to repeal the local funding ban gained traction this summer when Congressman Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), who chairs the Financial Services Subcommittee, and DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton spearheaded the effort to lift the ban, and ultimately dropped it from annual appropriations for the District. Subsequently, the House rejected an attempt by Congressman Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) in June to reinstitute a modified ban that would have had a chilling effect on the existing needle exchange program in DC. The revised policy for DC survived further scrutiny in the Senate, and was then included in the year-end omnibus spending package, which was signed by President Bush today.

The Drug Policy Alliance applauds Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton for their leadership and determination to lift this ban and aide efforts to stem the HIV/AIDS crisis that is sweeping Washington, DC. It is duly recognized that local political leaders, community activists and frontline service providers have tirelessly sought to repeal this ban for years.

“We hope repealing the DC syringe ban is just the first step,” said Bill Piper, Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Congress and the President also need to repeal the national ban that prohibits states from using their share of federal HIV/AIDS prevention money on syringe exchange programs. The national ban is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.”

It has been long established by the scientific community that needle exchange programs reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS amongst people who inject drugs without increasing drug use. In Washington, DC, injecting drugs is the second-most common means of contracting HIV among men — and the most common form among women. Approximately one-third of new AIDS cases annually are the result of intravenous drug use.

Supporters of needle exchange include the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, Centers for Disease Control and three former U.S. Surgeon Generals. A number of faith communities officially support needle exchange including The Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of the 415,193 persons reported to be living with AIDS in the U.S. at the end of 2004, at least 30% of cases were related to injection drug use. About 12,000 Americans contract HIV/AIDS directly or indirectly from the sharing of dirty syringes each year. About 17,000 contract hepatitis C.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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