Federal Ban on Syringe Exchange: One Step Forward and Two Steps Back?

Vermont CARES has been keeping a close eye on developments in Washington DC regarding syringe exchange.  The news is mixed.

Congress is slowly moving to eliminate a clause in budget language that for years has banned the expenditure of federal funds for syringe exchange.  Doing so would be a wise budgetary and public health shift, since it will allow for much-needed resources to support programs nationwide that reduce rates of HIV and other blood-borne pathogens, reduce rates of complications due to injection drug use, and help segue participants into substance abuse treatment.  These programs are critical for an otherwise underserved population, and are currently funded by private or state funds. (To note: Vermont CARES operates a syringe exchange program through our St. Johnsbury office.)

Two unwelcome developments in the past two weeks complicate lifting the ban.  First and foremost, a new clause has been inserted into House language barring syringe exchange programs within 1,000 feet of schools, childcare centers, and many other public institutions.  This would present a nearly impossible quandary for urban syringe exchanges in dense neighborhoods, therefore providing a de facto continuation of the ban on federal funds. 

A second clause threatens to extend that federal proximity ban to syringe exchanges in Washington DC proper, even for syringe exchanges supported by city dollars.  The threat of virtually defunding and closing syringe exchanges in a city that consistently is most affected by HIV infections is unethical and a serious threat to public health. 

These policy discussions on Capitol Hill are less about funding and finance, and more about the priority of extending life-saving and community-enhancing programs to communities that most need them.  While the financial angle may seem narrow, the implications are very broad indeed. 

We will provide updates through this blog, through email alerts, and through personal correspondence regarding steps for public action so we can work together to remove this virtual extension of the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange. 

In the meantime, check out the New York Time’s August 4th, 2009 editorial “Playing a Deadly Game with AIDS,” in support of stripping this language from Congressional appropriations.  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/05/opinion/05wed2.html

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