WHEN THE SENATE takes up the District's fiscal year 2000 budget, a floor amendment may be offered to ban a needle-exchange program in the city. A yes vote is a green light to allow HIV to spread unimpeded among intravenous drug users.

The District has strong reason for an effective needle-exchange program. The highest rate of new HIV infections is in the nation's capital. AIDS kills in the District like no other cause of death for residents between ages 30 and 44. The city has the distinction of having an AIDS death rate seven times the national average. As if this weren't tragic enough, the city also has to contend with needle-exchange opponents attacking a program that has -- through the Whitman Walker Clinic -- reduced the spread of HIV by causing a 29 percent drop in the number of drug injections.

Opponents will argue that needle-exchange programs promote drug use. That has not been the District's experience. Nor has it been the experience of more than 113 other state and local government-supported programs across the nation. Maybe that's why the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Bar Association and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have thrown their weight behind the program.

Last year Congress unwisely added to another District law a prohibition on funding a needle-exchange program. In an act of legislative overkill, it also required that private groups spending their own money on such programs lose any federal funds they might receive. That took the Whitman Walker Clinic out of the picture. As a result, a local group receiving only private funds is trying to fight the spread of HIV on a shoestring budget. That's the wrong way to fight a killing disease. The District should be able to spend its own money on this lifesaving program.