House Repeals Needle Ban

"It's been so long. Finally, finally, public health overcomes politics," said Paola Barahona, right, executive director of PreventionWorks!, with program manager Ron Daniels and Teefari Mallory. Funding has often been tenuous for PreventionWorks!, D.C.'s only needle-exchange program. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Beth Sheridan and Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 29, 2007

The House yesterday lifted a nine-year-old ban on using D.C. tax dollars to provide clean needles to drug addicts, handing city leaders what they consider a crucial new weapon against a severe AIDS epidemic.

The change reflects how Democrats are trying to use their new majority status in Congress to give the District somewhat greater autonomy. Congress has traditionally used its budget power over the city to flex its muscles on such local issues as gun control and abortion.

Democrats also tried yesterday to abolish a prohibition on using federal money for the city's domestic-partner registry. The attempt failed. The development will have little practical effect because the city uses its own funds for that program, officials said.

The needle-exchange and domestic-partner items were part of a $21 billion funding bill for the next fiscal year that covered more than two dozen federal agencies as well as the District. The bill includes more than $650 million for District schools, courts, libraries and other institutions.

"For too long, Congress has unfairly imposed on the citizens of D.C. by trying out their social experiments there," said Rep. Jose E. Serrano, (D-N.Y.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that handles the D.C. budget. "The ban on needle exchanges was one of the most egregious of these impositions, especially because the consensus is clear that these programs save lives."

The bill goes to the Senate, which is likely to make some revisions but is not expected to reverse the decision on needle exchange.

The House action comes as the city is pressing for more rights on several fronts. Legislation to give the District its first voting member of Congress has passed the House and is in the Senate. In addition, a House subcommittee recently passed bills that would provide the city greater legislative and budget autonomy.

Local officials were jubilant over the lifting of the ban. D.C. Health Director Gregg A. Pane said his department would commit $1 million toward needle-exchange programs for 2008.

"It's a landmark day," he said, "something folks in D.C. have worked for for many, many years."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who had lobbied her party's leadership for the change, said scrapping the rider from the budget bill was critical for a city that has one of the country's worst HIV/AIDS rates.

"It is the only rider that has ever had life-or-death consequences," she said.

Advocates say providing clean needles to addicts lessens the chance that they will share dirty ones, potentially passing on HIV and other blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis. Intravenous drug users make up about one-third of the District's new AIDS cases annually.

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