Fearing that the ban on federal funds for needle exchange programs might be lifted, opponents on Wednesday warned Congress and the Clinton administration that a majority of the public is against reversing the current policy.
Needle exchange programs are "a dopey idea," said Gary L. Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative interest organization, as he held up a handful of syringes. "Congress and the Clinton administration would make a radical mistake to flirt with the idea of needle exchange programs as sound and effective policy."
But supporters of such programs held their own news conference in Washington on Wednesday, saying that removing HIV-contaminated syringes from circulation and replacing them with sterile ones had proved the most effective form of AIDS prevention among drug users.
Federal funding of programs providing drug users a clean needle when they turn in a used one has been banned by Congress since 1988. But Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, who has the power to lift the ban, recently said that needle exchange programs slow the spread of HIV--which some saw as an indication she may reverse the policy.
Moreover, a growing chorus of voices recently has urged her to take that action. Led by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, the U.S. Conference of Mayors recently urged an end to the federal ban, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) on Wednesday introduced a bill that would require Shalala to do so. Also, the American Bar Assn. is on record backing needle exchange programs.
California is among 10 states that still ban such programs. Thus, even if the federal ban on funding were lifted, legislation at the state level would be needed to clear the way for needle exchange programs.