In a historic move, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on July 24 to remove a 21 year old ban that has restricted the use of federal funds being used to support needle exchange programs. However the Senate retained the complete ban in its version of the budget. The possible removal of ban also has implications for U.S. support of needle exchange programs in other countries. The vote was a surprise to some who had despaired after President Obama failed to remove language retaining the ban in the 2010 budget he submitted to Congress. In reality though, the win was thanks to the relentless efforts of harm reduction advocates in the United States, who worked district by district to mobilize constituents to lobby their representative.
Though the House of Representatives vote is a promising first step, the battle is not over. The ban contains a problematic provision prohibiting federal dollars from being used to fund programs that operate within 1,000 feet of schools, daycare centers, universities, pools, parks and video arcades. While, on the face of it this may sound innocuous, in many districts, particularly in urban areas, this would stop needle exchange programs from operating where services are needed most.
U.S.-based advocates are working to convince Congressional members to remove this provision when the bill goes to "conference" - the time when the House and Senate meet to iron out differences between the two versions of the bill, something that will likely happen in September. Until that time, the ban remains in place.