NEEDLE EXCHANGE: Battle Over Ban Shifts Into High Gear
"Conservatives reacted angrily" Friday to news that "the Clinton administration is on the verge of lifting a 10-year-old ban on using federal funds for needle-exchange programs to prevent the spread of AIDS," the San Francisco Chronicle reports (see CHL 4/14). Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-GA) "said he will introduce legislation that would bar Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala from lifting the ban even if she wanted to." In a letter sent to President Clinton in Chile, Coverdell, "a prominent voice in the effort to curb international drug sales," wrote, "I find it difficult to comprehend how we can ask other nations to help us in our fight when at home we are handing out free needles in our neighborhoods to drug addicts. By allowing taxpayer dollars to subsidize these programs, we are de facto decriminalizing intravenous drug use" (Freedberg, 4/18). "Just when you thought that the Clinton drug policy couldn't get any worse, people in his administration are talking about subsidizing the habits of drug addicts," said Rep. Gerald Solomon (R-NY), chair of the House Rules Committee. The Washington Times reports that Solomon will "introduce a bill for a permanent funding ban and will also attach an amendment to a spending measure to ensure that no AIDS dollars are used for needle-exchange programs" (Price, 4/18). "The chorus of opposition suggests that Republicans will try to make the ban a major campaign issue if it is lifted," the Chronicle reports.
Hugs Not Drugs ... Or Needles
Some conservative opponents to needle-exchange programs, according to the Chronicle, "argued that it was a moral decision as well a question of policy." William Bennett, the drug czar during the Reagan administration, said, "Needle exchange is a terrible and morally indefensible policy. The problem isn't dirty needles, the problem is heroin and drug addiction" (4/18). Jim Nicholson, chair of the Republican National Committee, charged that allowing taxpayer- funded needle exchanges for heroin addicts would be "giving aid and comfort to the enemy in the war on drugs." Nicholson said that as Clinton administration Drug Czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey "has rightly and courageously said, our message on drug use ought to be clear and unambiguous -- not a wink and a nod and 'I would have inhaled if I could have'" (RNC release, 4/17). Robert Maginnis, senior policy analyst for the Family Research Council, said lifting the federal funding ban "would be a national disgrace." He said, "HIV prevention among addicts should focus on drug treatment, not on sustaining deadly lifestyles. ... The facts are clear: Far more addicts die from drug overdose and violence than AIDS" (FRC release, 4/17).
A House Divided
The Washington Times reported Friday that Shalala's decision to lift the ban could come as early as today -- backed up by an HHS report to President Clinton "that purportedly concluded giving clean needles to drug users blunts the spread of AIDS and curbs drug use." But late Friday, HHS spokesperson Melissa Skolfield said Shalala "has not made a decision" on the issue and will "be making an announcement when she feels the science is there." Skolfield added that Shalala has "no timetable" for making a decision. According to the Washington Times, the Clinton administration appears divided on the issue. While Clinton's AIDS office, headed by Sandra Thurman, "has made lifting the needle-exchange funding ban its top goal," the president's drug office recently visited the world's largest needle-exchange program in Vancouver, British Columbia, finding it largely ineffective. The Washington Times reports that the drug office found that HIV infections in Vancouver "were higher among users of free needles than those without access to them and the death rate from drugs soared after the program was instituted, from 18 a year in 1988 to 150 in 1992" (4/18).
In related news, the mayors of five cities -- San Francisco, Detroit, Seattle, New Haven and Baltimore -- sent a letter to Shalala urging her to lift the ban, Reuters/New York Times reports. They wrote that "33 Americans were infected every day with the virus that causes AIDS as a result of injecting drugs" (4/19). "We are not requesting additional federal funding for needle exchanges. We are simply asking the federal government to allow local governments the discretion to use existing federal funding for HIV prevention to support needle programs in our cities," the mayors wrote. The Chronicle reports that about 100 communities nationwide "operate their own needle-exchange programs without using federal funds," with San Francisco operating the nation's largest. Funded by private donations and city funds, the San Francisco program hands out 2.2 million needles annually (4/18).