State syringe exchange programs that provide clean needles to drug users and others to stop the spread of HIV are not allowed to use federal funds. Since 1988, the federal government has prohibited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funding to be used for syringe exchange programs.
And because of that, states that allow the syringe exchange programs—and states that even fund them—are struggling with funding in some cases with the absence of federal dollars and also federal policy support for the idea.
“It has a chilling effect, when you have the federal government saying that the science is not all there—it gives people an excuse not to do it or they actually believe what the government says,” Allan Clear, executive director of the California-based Harm Reduction Coalition, said of the federal ban on syringe exchange funding.
Clear’s organization is pushing to lift the federal ban on funding for syringe exchange—focusing more on the federal government’s policy than on what individual states are doing. That’s because he believes once the ban is lifted, doors will open for more states to either start syringe exchange programs or continue to fund the needle swaps.
“We’re pretty much taking this view from the top,” Clear said. “What we imagine is going to happen if the federal ban goes, it will allow states and local municipalities to decide if they want to use federal funds.”
The language that keeps federal funds from syringe exchange is actually in the labor bill—written as a rider, according to Clear.
Besides causing some state syringe exchange programs to be crunched for funds, the federal ban on CDC funding means “no politician wants to pick it up,” explained Robert Childs, public health operations manager for New York City’s Positive Health Project. That syringe exchange includes an impressive list of services in addition to the needle swap housed in the building near Times Square.
If the federal ban is lifted, it will bring AIDS and HIV issues to the forefront of public health, Childs said.
After President Bush signed a fiscal year 2008 omnibus spending bill—H.R. 2764, the Consolidated Appropriations Act—a ban was lifted on city funding for syringe exchange programs in Washington, D.C. Since 1999, Washington, D.C., was the only city in the nation forbidden by federal law to use local funds for syringe exchange.
And even though states are able to use local funds for syringe exchange, the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange is still in place despite efforts from the Harm Reduction Coalition and other lobbying groups.
For more information on state syringe exchange programs, check out the May issue of State News.