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Needle Exchange Gets a Surprise Supporter

Former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson is about the furthest thing from a bleeding-heart apologist for criminal behavior. But in his column in today’s Washington Post, Gerson makes a good case in support of needle exchange programs to combat HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases among illegal drug users.

Critics claim that needle-exchange programs create a moral hazard by legitimizing drug abuse. But it does not legitimate drug abuse to help people with the clinical disease of addiction avoid other deadly diseases until they are ready for help. Sacrificing the lives of addicts to send an “unmixed” moral message actually sends a troubling moral message: that the unwanted have no worth.

The topic is timely, because House lawmakers have passed legislation repealing a 21-year-old ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs, which have been endorsed by a long list of public health groups and federal health officials. Conservative critics, however, say the programs simply condone drug use and contribute to crime. Bowing to such sentiments, House Democrats were forced to dilute their proposal by prohibiting needle exchanges within 1,000 feet of schools, daycare centers, pools, parks, and basically anywhere else that children gather. In a city setting, that means just about everywhere.

In the eyes of Gerson, the restrictions make no sense.

This restriction might make sense if needle-exchange programs increased the number of addicts. But they don’t. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, has comprehensively reviewed the scientific studies on needle exchange. “It does not,” he says, “result in an increase in drug abuse, and it does decrease the incidence of HIV. . . . The idea that kids are going to walk out of school and start using drugs because clean needles are available is ridiculous.”

Later in the year, House and Senate lawmakers will meet to decide whether the repeal of the federal ban on needle-exchange funding will remain in the larger bill, which will provide funds for the Department of Health and Human Services. A number of Democrats hope that, not only will that language remain, but the 1,000-foot restriction will be eliminated as well.

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