Obama to Lift Ban on Needle Exchanges

April 29th, 2010 admin Posted in obama health system Comments Off

While reformers are far from pleased with the initial rollout of President Obama’s drug policy agenda, treatment activists can at least point to a significant change in the federal stance on clean needle exchange programs. Unlike former President Bush, who supported a ban on federal funding of such public health programs, Obama’s agenda, as spelled out at Whitehouse.gov, calls for rescinding the ban in an effort to save lives by reducing the transmission of HIV/AIDS. “The President,” according to the agenda, “supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users.”

Opponents of needle exchange say the effort is similar to the medical marijuana movement—a stealth strategy for the legalization of drugs. However, as I wrote in an earlier post, the administration’s support of needle exchange is a timely recognition that cities like Vancouver and San Francisco are already experimenting with the notion of safe drug injection sites. (Part of the argument in favor of such sites is the opportunity for clean needle exchanges.)

Under the heading “Civil Rights,” the White House web site has also signaled support for the expanded use of drug courts to allow non-violent offenders into “the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior.” The agenda also calls for the reduction of sentencing inequities (“President Obama and Vice President Biden believe the disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated”).

An article in the Drug War Chronicle notes that “reformers may find themselves pleased with some Obama positions, but they will be less happy with others. The Obama administration wants to reduce inequities in the criminal justice system, but it is also taking thoroughly conventional positions on other drug policy issues.”

To wit, marijuana. Activists were hoping for a clear demonstration of support for the use of medical marijuana. So far, that hasn’t happened. Marijuana is not mentioned at all in the relevant sections of the online policy agenda, though the document is known to be a work in progress.

Nonetheless, it might be well to heed the advice offered by the U.K.’s Transform Drug Policy Foundation: “Lifting the disgraceful needle exchange funding ban is a good start considering we are only in day one—and the generally pragmatic tone bodes well. Can we be cautiously optimistic? Yes we can.”

Dirk Hanson

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