D.C. Officials Race to Rescue Needle Exchange Funding

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009; B01

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.

The city first funded needle exchange programs in April 2008. "We did not have a needle exchange program before we got funded by the District," Hamilton said. "It would just be impossible to operate."

The city's federal relations director, who works in Gray's office, handed out the maps to appropriations committee members in both houses of Congress and urged them to fight the amendment, said Gray's spokeswoman, Doxie McCoy.

The amendment's sponsor, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), said he did not receive a map or a call from the city. "If my staff has heard from any of the opponents of this, they haven't shared it with me," he said.

Kingston said he sponsored the amendment because "children should not be out playing kickball and watching people exchange needles for illegal drug use" but that he's open to discussing the matter.

"I was surprised," Kingston said, that Norton didn't approach him after the amendment was offered during an appropriations committee hearing. "It's possible that she thought that some of these groups reached out to me," he said.

Norton bristled at Kingston's remark. She said the congressman misrepresented the amendment in his original announcement, saying it would only restrict needle exchanges within 1,000 feet of schools, which is already prohibited by D.C. law.

"The next day, we look at the amendment, and it has all these other things," she said.

A spokesman for Kingston said the congressman clearly spelled out the amendment's full intent and passed out a copy at the appropriations hearing that Norton attended.

"Everyone in the community knows I wouldn't do anything but try to get it off," Norton said. "We will continue to fight to bring the bill back to where the House and the Senate left it two years ago." In 2007, the House and Senate gave the District authority to use D.C. tax dollars for needle exchange funding.

"This is my first priority because of the relationship of needle exchange to our HIV rate. It's the reason our rate is above cities like Baltimore and New York," Norton said. "I am shocked that . . . we have to replay this story."

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