What's the Point?

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Friday, February 8, 2008

TUCKED INTO President Bush's 2009 budget proposal is the resurrection of a provision, dumped by Congress last year, that prohibits the District from using its own money to fund needle-exchange programs. This is unconscionable, especially since intravenous drug use is helping to fuel the HIV-AIDS crisis gripping the city. That Mr. Bush would do this in a budget that will take effect after he's left Washington strikes us as gratuitous and shortsighted.

The restriction was attached to the District's appropriations bill by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) in 1998. Mr. Bush has supported the prohibition every year of his administration. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, he and Mr. Tiahrt are part of the head-in-the-sand crowd that believes swapping addicts' dirty needles for clean ones encourages drug use. Never mind that there are more than 210 syringe-swapping programs in 36 states. Every attempt to excise the harmful provision failed -- until last year. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) used the new Democratic majority in the House to finally strip it from legislation.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) wasted no time once the District's federal appropriation was finalized late last year. He immediately pumped $300,000 into PreventionWorks!, the city's only needle-exchange program, to expand its services. He hopes to fund four more organizations that do similar work. The deadline to answer a request for proposals is Feb. 29. The awards will be made in April. The help can't come soon enough. Fourteen percent of District residents who became HIV-positive did so through intravenous drug use. Overall, AIDS is devastating the city, with 128.4 AIDS cases per 100,000 people. This is higher than the rates in Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia.

Mr. Bush's attempt to reinstate the ban on local funding of needle-exchange programs will not affect Mr. Fenty's current plans. Still, he will have to fight anew to ensure that the prohibition does not make it into the final appropriation that will go into effect next year. But we take heart in one thing: While the president can make budget proposals, Congress will actually write the bill. Congress would do the District a good deed and potentially save lives if it ignored Mr. Bush on this issue.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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