Federal ban on needle exchange programs challenged in the NYTimes

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HIVstructure_Carlos_exeIn March, we wrote about Indiana Governor Pence and his decision to finally allow for a clean needle exchange to stem the outbreak of IV-drug-induced HIV in Scott County, IN. Federal law currently forbids funding needle-exchange programs, even though there is zero evidence that such harm-reduction tactics encourage the spread of drug abuse.

A recent New York Times article by Carl Hulse discusses this federal ban, both how it came to be and whether or not it will last. The ban was successfully pushed by ultra-conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms in 1988 as he and others attuned to his beliefs asserted that distributing sterile syringes to drug users would represent federal endorsement of drug abuse, even though ample research shows that such programs can reduce the spread of disease. Mr. Helms believed that these needle exchanges amounted to It s not only all right to use drugs, but we ll give you the needles.

Yet despite the evidence and recommendations from the CDC and WHO, among others, as well as the outbreaks of HIV and hepatitis that can be attributed to a surge in heroin use in states like Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia, Hulse writes that Congress appears unlikely to overturn the moratorium even with drug problems hitting hard in states represented by those responsible for the spending bills that impose the ban.

Some politicians, such as Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY), believe that federal resources should be spent elsewhere, for example on education and treatment programs meant to end the cycle of dependency. Others are still adamant about not wanting it to appear as if the government is encouraging drug use. As Republicans, we don t want to look like we are facilitating drug use, said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma.

However, research by WHO clearly demonstrates needle exchange programs do not increase drug use. They do, on the other hand, effectively help to stop the spread of a potentially deadly and incurable disease, which can also be spread to non-drug users and to babies by their mothers during pregnancy or childbirth. Health, and not ideology, should be the determining factor, says Representative Rose DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut who is in favor of lifting the ban.

ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross had this to say: We at ACSH agree with Rep. DeLauro. The sad fact is that for the Republicans quoted in this article, they would rather not look like we are facilitating drug use than actually serve their constituents and public health by allowing clean needle exchange. Again, politics trumps public health.