amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Syringe Exchange Victory Possible in D.C.?

July 19, 2007— amfAR and other supporters of syringe exchange are cautiously celebrating a recent victory in the House of Representatives, which voted to lift a ban on the use of local taxpayer dollars in Washington, D.C., to provide clean syringes for injection drug users.

The Washington ban has been in place since 1998, when restrictions were passed proscribing the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs. Alone among U.S. cities, Washington has been prohibited from using its own funds to support these programs. The only syringe exchange effort in the city has been run by PreventionWorks!, a nonprofit group whose funding comes entirely from private donors such as amfAR.

In addition to amfAR’s long-time financial support for the syringe exchange program run by PreventionWorks!, the Foundation has actively urged Congress to rescind the ban, held Congressional briefings on the benefits of syringe exchange programs, and has published fact sheets and issue briefs to help inform policy makers, educators, and community groups.

Before any of Washington’s funds can be allocated to syringe exchange, a final appropriations bill for 2008 must be passed by the full Congress and signed into law by the President, a step that is not expected to be taken until the fall. Although the White House has been opposed to lifting the ban, the President has given no indication that he would veto the bill because of the provision.

PreventionWorks! handed out more than 236,000 needles in Washington last year, but the number is far below that required in a city where an estimated 1 in 20 adults is HIV positive and the AIDS rate is twelve times that of the national average. HIV transmission through injection drug use disproportionately affects women and African-Americans, and the problem is most common in Washington’s most economically disadvantaged areas.

Advocates for syringe exchange programs are eagerly watching this legislative process, not only for the benefit it could bring Washington but as a test of Congressional support for repealing the larger ban on the use of federal funds for these programs. Like the Washington restriction, the federal ban has remained in place despite overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrating that syringe exchange programs reduce HIV infections and do not increase drug use. The federal ban has also had a global impact by preventing funding for syringe exchange efforts in countries supported by U.S. foreign assistance programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. This restriction has made it particularly difficult to stem the epidemics in countries like Viet Nam, where AIDS is highest among injection drug users.