News & Press

Needling Obama

Needling Obama

Serrano and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton celebrated the lifting of D.C.‘s ban—will a bigger celebration happen soon?

President Barack Obama’s decision to maintain the federal ban on syringe exchange funding bitterly disappointed harm reduction and AIDS advocates last week. Nonetheless, some of those same advocates say that chances are better than ever that the House will remove the rider that prohibits the funding—as long as Representatives are convinced that needle exhange is no longer a politically dangerous issue.

Like many, AIDS Action Political Director Bill McColl, one of the key advocates working on this issue, criticized Obama’s lack of gumption on needle exchange. “This is not something we should be making political calculations about,” he said.

The White House defended Obama’s decision. “We have not removed the ban in our budget proposal because we want to work with Congress and the American public to build support for this change,” a spokesperson said. “We are committed to doing this as part of a National HIV/AIDS strategy and are confident that we can build support for these scientifically-based programs.”

Mountains of studies have proven that syringe exchange programs decrease infections and don’t promote drug use. Nationally, there are more than 210 needle exchange programs in place in 36 states, and approximately half of the programs receive local or state funding. Many operate on a shoe-string budget.

Turning to the House

Despite Obama’s willingness to punt on needle exchange, there is still a fair chance of using a Congressional rider to achieve the same end.

“Despite the fact that Obama rolled over, and we wish he had sent a stronger message to Congress, we know the Democratic leadership is into [lifting the federal ban]. I think we’d definitely have the votes,” said Harm Reduction Coalition Regional Director Hilary McQuie.

All that has to happen is for the Chair of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Rep. David Obey (D-WI) to take the 1988 language creating the ban out of the Health and Human Services appropriations bill. The removal of the language would then go to a full House vote. Hill insiders say Obey is scared to go this route unless he knows for sure the measure would pass.

Obama will likely stay on the sidelines if Obey goes this route. A White House insider said that the President doesn’t like the practice of using riders in the budget process to address complex policy issues.

Some House members are worried about possible backlash from constituents, a fear advocates say is unfounded, noting the lack of organized opposition and the scant backlash when Congress allowed Washington, D.C. to spend its own funding on syringe exchange programming in 2007.

“The political threat is exaggerated,” McQuie said. “There is some opposition among drug warriors in Congress, but there’s no more questioning of the science like there used to be. You could see that in the press coverage when the syringe exchange ban was lifted in D.C. In the 90s, the syringe exchange advocates were portrayed as the ones with out-of-the-mainstream values. Now it’s the other way around.”

The missing piece? Advocates need to show Congress that needle-exchange is an important issue politically. “We’ve fallen short on some of the letters and calls and made it the path of least resistance,” McQuie said. “The House leadership has challenged the AIDS Service Organizations, ‘You say this issue is important to you, but we haven’t seen it.’ “

Serrano’s Stand

Once the ban is taken out of the rider, the next important step is for Congress to pass a bill ending the ban on federal funding for needle exchange. Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), has already introduced the Community AIDS and Hepatitis Prevention Act, a bill which currently has 89 sponsors and would permanently end the federal ban on syringe exchange.”

“I had hoped that the Obama Administration would support removing the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs in their Budget proposal,” Serrano said in a statement. “Although I am disappointed the budget did not contain this change, I welcome the President’s support for legislative action and I will continue my efforts here in Congress to lift this senseless prohibition.”

Let Obey know you want him to end the needle-exchange-funding ban! And let your Representative know you want him or her to vote for Serrano’s bill!

Step 1: Call for the Labor, Health and Education Appropriations Bill.

Call Rep. David Obey (WI) 202-225-3365, Chair of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. Tell his office: My name is [NAME], and I live in [CITY, STATE]. Thanks for taking my call. I’m calling to encourage Rep. David Obey to take leadership to remove the federal ban on syringe exchange funding in the 2010 Appropriations Bill.

Step 2: Call your Representative.
Call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard (202) 224-3121 and ask to speak to your Representative. When calling the switchboard, you may give your zip code if you do not know the names of your members of Congress.When someone answers the phone, tell them: “My name is [NAME], and I live in [CITY, STATE]. Thanks for taking my call. I’m calling to encourage Representative [REPRESENTATIVE’S NAME] to cosponsor H.R. 179, the Community AIDS and Hepatitis Prevention Act of 2009.

If your representative is a co-sponsor thank them for their support of H.R. 179!

(See the list of cosponsors)

Posted on May 14, 2009 at 11:24 pm