Congress Repeals Decades-Old National Syringe Funding Ban and Allows Washington, D.C. to Establish a Medical Marijuana Program

Press Release December 12, 2009
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Bill Piper at 202-669-6430</p>

Building on the momentum of this year's state-level reforms to U.S. drug laws, Congress has passed major changes to national drug policy as part of an end-of-year omnibus spending package. The legislation repeals a decades-old policy that prohibited cities and states from using their share of federal HIV/AIDS prevention money to fund syringe exchange programs, which have been shown to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and other infectious diseases. In addition, the omnibus bill overturns a provision that barred the city of Washington, D.C. from implementing a medical marijuana law approved overwhelmingly by District voters back in 1998. The city will now be free to set its own medical marijuana policies. The bill is expected to be signed into law by President Obama within the next week.

"Hundreds of thousands of Americans will not get HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C, thanks to Congress repealing 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."

The lifting of the syringe funding ban represents a huge victory for HIV/AIDS prevention and drug policy reform, and it was made possible by the strong leadership of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Congressman David Obey (D-WI), Congressman Jose Serrano (D-NY), Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), and others who had the courage to stand up for science over drug war hysteria.

While 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.

Advocates also hailed the move to allow D.C. voters to determine their own medical marijuana policies.

"Congress has made 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. "D.C. 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 reflect a national trend towards enacting major changes in U.S. drug policy. In April, New York State reformed its harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws, eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing for most low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. In November, Maine citizens voted to establish compassion centers to distribute medical marijuana to patients. The New Jersey legislature is expected to pass legislation this month allowing judges to waive mandatory minimum penalties for certain nonviolent drug law offenses. New Jersey also stands poised to legalize marijuana for medical use, joining the 13 states that have already legalized medical marijuana. Meanwhile, dozens of states have overhauled their harsh sentencing laws to reduce incarceration and increase the availability of treatment.

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 to reorient U.S. drug policy towards more of a 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 laws, 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 this recent action on Capitol Hill provides unprecedented evidence that Congress is at last coming to its senses when it comes to national drug control policy."


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