The omnibus spending bill recently passed by Congress contained at least one piece of good news for Washington: A longtime restriction on using local funds for needle exchange programs was lifted. Removing the restriction was overdue because the district has one of the nation's highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection, and distributing clean needles to drug users could help slow the spread. Regrettably, a nationwide ban on using federal funds for needle exchange programs remains in place. Congress should follow its sensible action on D.C. and lift the national ban as well.
Although the federal prohibition has been in effect since 1998, it is estimated that more than 210 needle exchange programs are operating in 36 states, with about half the programs using local and state funds. While these programs are no panacea to the drug epidemic, some studies show that clean needles can at least reduce new cases of HIV. That's been true in Maryland, where injection drug use as the cause of newly diagnosed HIV cases has dropped from 60 percent in 1994 to below 30 percent as of June 2007, according to the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Despite such progress, conservative Republicans in Congress have continued to block federal funds for needle exchanges. And for the past decade, they have also prevented Washington from using its own tax money for such programs. After regaining control of Congress in the 2006 elections, Democrats pushed successfully for a course correction.
Local Washington officials could now follow Baltimore's example, where more than 3 million syringes have been distributed since 1994. The city's Health Department operates two vans that visit 18 sites around the city nearly every weekday as well as many evenings and weekends. Since July (the current fiscal year), the city's needle exchange program has served nearly 6,100 clients, and more than 163,860 syringes have been exchanged.
Despite progress in reducing needle sharing and other risky injection behaviors, the battle is far from over. Recent studies show that Maryland and Baltimore rank second in new AIDS cases among states and major cities, respectively. But people who inject drugs and may become infected with HIV or develop AIDS don't always stay in one place. More federal resources devoted to the struggle would be welcome.