Friday, November 6, 2009
Needle Exchange in America
AIDS/harm reduction activists press Obama.
First, the good news: After 20 years, the U.S. Congress has voted to remove the funding ban on syringe exchange programs designed to combat AIDS and to bring hard drug users within the orbit of the medical health community.
Now, the bad news: Conservative legislators have managed to insert a provision in the bill prohibiting needle exchange centers within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers, colleges, playgrounds, youth centers, swimming pools—and just about any other institution you care to come up with. In short, the legislation would make it virtually impossible to operate a viable needle exchange program, even if sufficient levels of federal funding can be obtained. As one harm reduction activist put it in the Seattle Stranger: The only place you could put a federally-funded needle exchange program in the entire city of Chicago... is O’Hare Airport? Gee, it’s almost like Democrats aren’t really serious about allowing funding live-saving needle programs at all.”
Clearly, needle exchange activists are still waiting for an unambiguous sign from the White House that Obama plans to uphold his campaign promises in this regard. Obama’s go-slow policy on needle exchange has frustrated AIDS activists in particular.
Physicians for Human Rights, a group that supports clean syringe exchange programs, made October 14 a National Call-in Day, noting on its web site that “Senators need to hear from President Obama that his Administration supports syringe exchange. Now is the time to urge President Obama to fulfill his campaign promise to end the ban and to urge the Senate to act.”
In a post in January of this year, I wrote: “Obama’s agenda, as spelled out at Whitehouse.gov, calls for rescinding the ban in an effort to save lives by reducing the transmission of HIV/AIDS. ‘The President,’ according to the agenda, ‘supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users.’"
Syringe exchange programs, Physicians for Human Rights declares, “do more than provide clean syringes and properly dispose of used ones; they link people into the health care system and drug treatment programs that save lives.”
In short, says the group, “the presence of syringe exchange programs in communities does not increase rates of drug use, nor does it lead to a rise in crime. What it does do: decrease transmission of HIV, Hepatitis C and other diseases.”
Moreover, during his confirmation hearings drug czar Gil Kirlikowske said that “a number of studies conducted in the US have shown needle exchange programs do not increase drug use.”
It’s a confusing picture in the field: Needle exchange programs exist, in San Francisco, Toronto, New York and other major metropolitan areas, because county and other local and regional officials have authorized it, even when funding was precarious. Alongside these programs, a plethora of illegal needle exchange operations is also in place. The Drug War Chronicle quoted the Western director of the Harm Reduction Coalition: “We need to get legislation authorizing syringe exchanges on a statewide level.... Requiring local authorization means we have to deals with 54 jurisdictions instead of just one.”
Back in May, Maia Szalavitz reported in Time that the president was planning to move deliberately as part of a broader HIV/AIDS strategy, even though groups from the World Health Organization (WHO) to the American Medical Association have gone on record with the view that giving clean needles to drug addicts is a successful strategy to reduce the spread of HIV disease. Studies by Don Des Jarlais of Beth Israel Hospital in New York suggest that infection rates in New York’s drug addict population may have dropped more than 75 % over the last few years as clean needle programs became increasingly available.
In a report last month by the Drug Reform Coordination Effort (DRCNet), a spokesperson for the AIDS Action group was determined to remain positive. “I have a pretty good feeling about this,” he said. “I’m hopeful this is the year.”