D.C. Officials Race to Rescue Needle Exchange Funding

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

When Congress lifted a 10-year ban on using D.C. tax dollars to provide clean needles to drug addicts in December 2007, it gave the city a powerful weapon in the fight against the spread of AIDS, according to health officials.

"We had a celebration," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

But the party could be ending.

This week, Norton and other D.C. officials were racing to persuade congressional leaders to erase a House amendment that would essentially reinstate the ban.

The amendment to the bill that gives the District its federal appropriation for 2010 would prohibit the city from providing money to any needle exchange program that operates within 1,000 feet of virtually any location where children gather.

"It essentially wipes out the program," said Norton, who added that she is calling "my friends in the Senate," asking them to be on the lookout for a copycat amendment to the Senate's version of the bill, which is still in committee.

Last week, a copycat amendment was attached to a separate House bill. It would lift a 21-year ban that prohibits cities from using federal dollars to fund needle exchange programs.

But D.C. officials are more concerned with the bill that covers the District's appropriation, because its restriction cuts deeper than the federal ban. The District, whose budget is overseen by Congress, would again be the only city in the nation barred from allocating both local and federal tax dollars to distribute clean needles.

If the Senate does not include a similar amendment in its version of the bill, members would iron out their differences in a conference committee after Congress returns from its August recess. That's where D.C. officials and AIDS activists hope to kill the amendment.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said the city will fight to ensure "that the needle exchange amendment is stripped from the final appropriations bill for this budget year as well."

With that goal, D.C. Council President Vincent C. Gray ordered a map to show that the amendment -- which would prohibit the allocation of funds to needle exchange programs near schools, day-care centers, pools, parks, arcades, colleges and other locations -- covers all but small pockets of the city.

"I don't see how any site can operate with those kinds of restrictions," said Flora Hamilton, executive director of Family and Medical Counseling Services, which has distributed more than 100,000 clean needles during the past year from its site near Anacostia Park.

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