Congress Poised to Repeal Decades-Old National Syringe Funding Ban and Allow Washington, DC to Establish a Medical Marijuana Program

Press Release December 8, 2009
Media Contact

Bill Piper at 202-669-6430 or Tony Newman at 646-335-5384

As part of an end-of-year spending package widely expected to pass Congress, Democrats are making major changes to U.S. drug policy. The legislation will be voted on in the House of Representatives Thursday or Friday. Among other things, the omnibus bill would repeal the decades-old policy prohibiting cities and states from using their share of HIV/AIDS prevention money on syringe exchange programs which reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other infectious diseases. The lifting of the ban is because of strong leadership by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Congressman David Obey (D-WI), Congressman Jose Serrano (D-NY), Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), and others.

“Hundreds of thousands of Americans will get HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C if Congress does not repeal the federal syringe funding ban,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The science is overwhelming that syringe exchange programs reduce the spread of infectious diseases without increasing drug use. We will make sure the American people know which members of Congress stand in the way of repealing the ban and saving lives.”

The legislation not only overturns the decades-old syringe funding ban but eliminates troubling provisions the House passed earlier this year. While some advocates remain concerned about some of the restrictions on syringe exchange funding in the bill, they are excited that federal money could soon start flowing to syringe exchange programs around the country. The lifting of the ban is a huge victory for HIV/AIDS prevention and drug policy reform.

The omnibus bill would also repeal a provision that overturned a 1998 medical marijuana law approved by Washington, DC voters. The city would now be free to set its own medical marijuana policies.

“Congress is close to making good on President Obama’s promise to stop the federal government from undermining local efforts to provide relief to cancer, HIV/AIDS and other patients who need medical marijuana,” said Naomi Long, the DC Metro director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “DC voters overwhelmingly voted to legalize marijuana for medical use and Congress should have never stood in the way of implementing the will of the people.”

The reforms in the end-of-year spending bill are part of a national trend towards major drug policy reform. In April, New York State repealed the Rockefeller Drug Laws, thus eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level, nonviolent drug law offenses. In November, Maine citizens voted to establish compassion centers to distribute marijuana to patients. New Jersey stands poised this month to reform both its harsh mandatory minimum penalties for nonviolent drug law offenses and legalize marijuana for medical use. 13 states have already legalized marijuana for medical use; dozens have already overhauled their harsh sentencing laws to reduce incarceration and make treatment more available.

On the campaign trail, President Obama called for treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue and advocates say he is beginning to follow through on his pledges. Administration officials have endorsed syringe exchange programs, called for federal sentencing reform, and taken steps towards reorienting U.S. drug policy towards a more demand-reduction approach. In March the Justice Department said it would no longer arrest and prosecute people using, growing or distributing marijuana as long as they are following their state’s medical marijuana law, ending a brutal Bush Administration policy.

“It’s too soon to say that America’s long national nightmare — the war on drugs — is really over,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “But yesterday’s action on Capitol Hill provides unprecedented evidence that Congress is at last coming to its senses when it comes to national drug control policy.”

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

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