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Banning the Syringe Exchange Ban

January 23, 2012

Banning the Syringe Exchange Ban

The federal budget should not be a mechanism for politicians to express their moral views. It should be a tool for ensuring the nation's health, education, and freedom. Yet by banning funding for syringe exchange programs members of Congress used the budget to express their distaste for drug users. For fiscal year 2012, syringe exchange programs that had been using federal funds for HIV prevention to support their work will no longer be able to do so. The ban cannot be excused based on the need to cut costs -- syringe exchange is one of the cheapest ways to prevent the spread of HIV and other blood-borne infections. The syringe exchange funding ban is yet another expression of the misunderstanding and moral stigma that much of the population has for drug users.

Syringe exchanges distribute clean needles to drug users when the users turn in used needles. By helping ensure that multiple people do not inject with the same needle, exchanges reduce transmission of blood-borne disease and keep dirty needles off our streets. The prevalence of hepatitis C in New York City's injection drug users used to be 91%. Until the city broadly implemented syringe exchanges -- then rate of infection among new users dropped to 56%.

Uniformly, studies show that the presence of an exchange in a community does not increase drug use. The World Health Organization, based on two decades of research, concluded that syringe exchange programs have no "major unintended negative consequences," including escalation of drug use. In fact, exchanges may decrease drug use because syringe exchanges give drug users, many of whom have no other contact with social services, a place to turn if they want to enter treatment.

From an economic standpoint alone, the ban is illogical. Syringe exchange has been proven, again and again, to be one of the cheapest ways to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases, such HIV and Hepatitis C. For these diseases in particular, prevention is economically essential because they are costly to treat, and drug users do not tend to be well insured. In the average city, it costs about $130,000 annually to operate a syringe exchange, or about $20 per drug user per year. One case of HIV, however, costs at least $120,000 to treat. If a drug user contracts HIV, he may wind up in an emergency room with an advanced case, and the government will have to cover the cost of his care.


And drug users do not live in a vacuum -- people who contract HIV via needle-sharing can spread the virus via sexual contact to others in the community, creating further suffering and burden on the health system. Banning syringe exchange funding is not a way to balance the budget. It is discrimination against people our society deems unworthy of health.

Our members of Congress must step back and understand drug use for what it really is. Once someone is addicted, drug use is not a choice. Addiction causes chemical changes in the brain -- it is a chronic, relapsing mental illness, not a moral failing. Given a person's socioeconomic circumstances and genetic predisposition, they may not be able to be faulted for first time drug use. If someone grew up in a household where both parents were addicts who shot up regularly at the dinner table, is it his fault that he used once? If someone has to sell sex to pay her rent and a client coerces her to inject with him, can we villanize her?

Other countries have not been as slow as the U.S. to acknowledge the rights of drug users. By funding syringe exchange, the federal government would be following Canada and most European countries, many of which began supporting exchanges over a decade ago.

Given the policies of other nations, there is no precedent for us to continue to treat drug users as if they are less than fully human. What will it take for us to learn that everyone is entitled basic rights, regardless of our moral judgment of them?

We can take action to bring an end to the ban on federal funding syringe exchange. We must urge President Obama not to include the ban on syringe exchange programs in his budget for fiscal year 2013 and ask that he urge Congress restore language allowing the use of federal funds. Over the course of the next year, before the fiscal year 2013 budget is decided, we cannot let this issue be forgotten. Congress should know we are outraged and that we will not stand for a federal budget without syringe exchange funding. Keep talking, informing others, advocating.

Helen Jack is a senior at Yale University, double majoring in biology and international studies. She recently received a Rhodes Scholarship and will spend the next two years working toward a degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford before returning to the U.S. for medical school.

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This article was provided by Housing Works. It is a part of the publication Housing Works AIDS Issues Update. Visit Housing Works' website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
See Also
Ask Our Expert, David Fawcett, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., About Substance Use and HIV
Needle Exchange & HIV/AIDS in the U.S.
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