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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Why I'm Lobbying to Repeal the Federal Ban on Needle Exchange Funding

Posted by on Wed, Aug 14, 2013 at 8:59 AM

This guest post is by Jim Pugel, interim chief of the Seattle Police Department.

Jim Pugel
  • Jim Pugel
As a law enforcement professional for more than 30 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of other officers in keeping our communities safe. The courts have stated that police have a "community care-taking" function. Syringe exchange programs are one of the ways we have of promoting public health and safety, but Congress has undermined these essential programs by prohibiting use of federal funds to support them.

Last week I spent two days in Washington, DC, with representatives from amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, meeting with senators and representatives and participating in a Capitol Hill briefing of staffers regarding lifting the federal ban on syringe exchange programs. As it considers the 2014 budget, Congress urgently needs to reverse this counterproductive restriction and permit federal funding for these programs.

Washington State began America’s first syringe exchange program in 1984, and, at the time, many feared it might undermine safe communities and law enforcement by encouraging drug use. After nearly three decades of study, it is clear that syringe programs help prevent HIV and other blood-borne pathogen transmission without increasing drug use, and reduce needle-sticks to police.

With 20 syringe programs around the state, Washington is a national leader in reducing the harms associated with drug use. In 2011 alone, syringe programs across Washington exchanged more than 11 million used syringes for sterile equipment—more than triple the number for any other state. Because of the availability of syringe exchange, communities in our states are healthier and safer.

Given the surge in prescription drug use and the associated increase in the number of people who turn to injecting drugs, demand for syringe exchange has grown. In Washington, the number of syringes exchanged has more than doubled since 2007.

With clear evidence documenting the benefits of syringe exchange, President Obama signed legislation in 2009 lifting the 20-year-old federal funding ban. In 2011, though, Congress restored the ban.

Syringe programs across the country are a large part of why we have seen a steep decline in annual new HIV infections from drug use since the 1980s. But, public health problems associated with drug use persist. From 2007-2010, injection drug use accounted for one in 12 new HIV infections in the US. Drug use is the leading cause of new cases of hepatitis C, a life-threatening condition that affects nearly three times as many people as HIV.

As numerous studies in the US and abroad have confirmed, syringe programs steer individuals toward effective drug treatment. Syringe exchange helps stabilize lives. Clients receive counseling and support; in one study of syringe programs in the U.S., employment among clients increased 45 percent within six months of enrollment.

Syringe programs, which actively encourage clients to return used needles, make communities safer by reducing the number of discarded needles, decreasing the likelihood that children or others will encounter contaminated injecting equipment in public places.

The public safety benefit of syringe programs is of particular importance to police officers and medical first responders, who are likely to suffer needle-stick injuries during regular duties. In one study of police officers in San Diego, 30 percent reported having been stuck by a needle at least once. Having well-supported syringe programs increases the likelihood that drug users will tell officers that they possess injecting equipment, reducing odds that an officer will incur a needle-stick injury during a search.

In the context of the federal budget, the dollar amounts at issue in the syringe exchange ban are minuscule. During the two years when federal funding was available, Washington allocated $79,500 in federal funding to support syringe exchange programs around the state. Although a modest sum, the loss of this flexibility has had severe consequences. Several programs have limited hours, reduced services and cut staff.

By restoring the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange, members of Congress undoubtedly believed they were striking a blow against drug use. As experience has shown, nothing could be further from truth. By withholding funding for syringe exchange, Congress has made our communities, police officers and medical responders less safe, undermined a vital bridge to drug treatment, and hindered national efforts to address serious public health problems such as HIV and hepatitis C.

When the White House released the budget proposal for 2014, it included language that would allow local and state policy makers to determine for themselves whether to use federal funds for evidence-based syringe services programs. The bill containing the clearest language that would allow local jurisdictions to use existing federal money for syringe exchange programs is the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriation Bill, 2014. Now we are waiting to see if Congress will adopt the Senate language and make it possible again for jurisdictions to make their own decisions about use of federal funds for this evidence based programming.


Comments (19) RSS

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Arguments that are both logical and compassionate have no place in politics. This is no way to change your status from interim to permanent.
Posted by -J on August 14, 2013 at 9:25 AM · Report this
MacCrocodile 2
@1 - I for one am happy to see someone at least attempting a different approach to police work and politics in Seattle.
Posted by MacCrocodile on August 14, 2013 at 9:35 AM · Report this
TomJohnsonJr 3
@1, I think Pugel's got a way-better-than-even shot at going permanent no matter which mayor we get out of the general election. And I'm glad, especially compared to Diaz, to whom McGinn was bafflingly loyal. A non-asshole permanent chief with good hair, who once babysat Dominic Holden? Acceptable.
Posted by TomJohnsonJr on August 14, 2013 at 9:43 AM · Report this
raindrop 4
Public health indeed - my ex got stabbed by a needle pushing down the trash in a bin for apartments he managed in the heart of Capitol Hill. So there you would also save the expense of public expenditures helping those folks who then have to take the AIDS fighting drugs for a time and get tested. This is a very legitimate role that constitutional conservatives and libertarians should applaud.
Posted by raindrop on August 14, 2013 at 9:55 AM · Report this
Fnarf 5
B-b-b-but if we aren't punishing someone, how will we know we're right? This country was founded on the principle of punishing the weak and making them suffer! (Seriously, this is a great editorial, and I'm only sorry that it's only going to be read by already-convinced sloggers, not the damn fools on the other side. Can the War on Drugs really be starting to shift a little?)
Posted by Fnarf on August 14, 2013 at 10:00 AM · Report this
brandon 6
Wow, I feel totally like a douche for not knowing there was a federal ban on needle exchange. At this point even Republicans have to admit that it is a good idea. It's not like we are giving them a baggie of Crystal to slam with it.

I just, my mind is blown. You are fighting the good fight Jim.
Posted by brandon on August 14, 2013 at 10:28 AM · Report this
I'm guessing that most people would agree with this editorial, yet most have also never heard that Congress banned needle exchange funding. How do I know this? Because this is the first time *I* hear about this! And I follow the news on a daily basis. Why? The President can create the news by pounding the pulpit about this. Democratic Senators and Representatives can go to reporters about this. Yet, not a peep is heard. Why not? I blame them as much as I blame the backwards, hypocritical, ignorant morons of the GOP. I'm probably naive, but it's not that hard to publicly castigate other politicians for taking anti-public health measures.
Posted by floater on August 14, 2013 at 10:53 AM · Report this
For the lawmakers who ban needle exchanges, junkies suffering and dying is a feature, not a bug.

Keep talking about the safety-for-cops-and-paramedics part; that's the winning angle. This is a great campaign, keep it up.
Posted by shabadoo on August 14, 2013 at 10:58 AM · Report this
JonnoN 9
For a split second my pre-caffeinated brain thought this was from Kerlikowske and I thought it sounded familiar... google brought me this:…

So how's that coming along?
Posted by JonnoN on August 14, 2013 at 11:16 AM · Report this
Short history for those unaware of the fed ban. In 1988 then Sen Jesse Helms (R-dead) put a rider in the first big HIV/AIDS prevention funding bill that prohibited the use of any federal funds for bleach distribution or syringe exchange. Ted Kennedy was able to get he bleach ban lifted, but not the syringe ban. There was an escape clause in the ban that federal funds could be used if the Secretary of Health and Human Services certified that syringe exchange a) prevented HIV/AIDS and b) and did not contribute to increased drug use.

In 1998 Sec Donna Shalala was prepared to lift the ban (and was in fact called back to the White House on her way to the press conference), when Clinton had his balls squeezed real hard by then drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who said that if the ban was lifted he's resin and accuse Clinton of being soft on drugs. Clinton later said his biggest mistake was not lifting the ban.

When Obama ran in 2008 he committed to getting the ban lifted by Congress (arguing that he could lift it and they could promptly reverse it). He worked behind the scenes with Rep. Serrano (D-NY) and others and Congress did lift the ban -- for one fucking year. And then did exactly what Obama feared: they reinstated it.

The burden of lives lost to HIV and hepatitis C (let alone the billions of added health care costs) by this ban is staggering.
Posted by gnossos on August 14, 2013 at 11:54 AM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 11
The recent bus shooting in down town Seattle makes it obvious why you would want to make life on the streets easier for intravenous drug addicts. Bravo, Chief Pugel, for keeping more crazies on the streets and flying high!

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on August 14, 2013 at 11:56 AM · Report this
Oh, and Chief Pugel fucking rocks!

(One minor nitpick: first US syringe exchange was in 1988, not 1984...established in Tacoma by the late, great, and deeply missed, Dave Purchase)
Posted by gnossos on August 14, 2013 at 11:57 AM · Report this
JonnoN 13
@10 thanks much for the recap. Here's a little more on congress re-instating the ban:…
Posted by JonnoN on August 14, 2013 at 12:07 PM · Report this
JonnoN 14
@11 your reading comprehension skills need a lot of work.
Posted by JonnoN on August 14, 2013 at 12:09 PM · Report this
TomJohnsonJr 15
@14, it's not his reading comprehension, it's his ability to comprehend anything at all.
Posted by TomJohnsonJr on August 14, 2013 at 12:12 PM · Report this
NaFun 16
@7 - when I lobbied Sen. Murray's office to lift the funding ban last year, I wsd told by her legislative aide that, straight up, it was a trophy the Republicans wanted and the Ds were willing to give it to them to get other things passed.
I am glad the Senate has language lifting the ban, and fearful the Republican House will keep their ban.

Posted by NaFun on August 14, 2013 at 11:10 PM · Report this
Dear Chief Pugel,

I used to inject meth intravenously for almost ten years. I'm still working on making myself more the person I'd like to be, and I still have slipups (though I haven't slammed in a while).

I consider myself very fortunate not to have hepatitis C. I knew quite a few people who had gotten it from sharing syringes. I've known people who died from it, some after cleaning themselves up, others who never did.

I attribute this not to any wise action on my own part. If I had my drugs and needed a syringe I would have used the first one that came into my hands, whether it was new or used, by me or someone else.

Because the place where I live had fairly easy access to buying fresh syringes and disposing of used ones and because there are people willing to run the risk of running exchanges (which are illegal here), I still have my health and I still have fairly decent veins on my arms.

Taking away my access to new syringes would not have stopped me from shooting up. And it wouldn't have stopped me from starting to slam in the first place. The only thing that could do that was my own determination to get clean. And it wouldn't have stopped me from starting to slam in the first place. That started with a "friend" who supplied me with everything I needed. But it would very likely have led to much more serious health complications.

I wasn't suitably grateful at the time. But I am now. Thank you for taking this stand, for everyone in Seattle who is where I was and who as a result will have a better chance down the road.
Posted by Thanks again on August 14, 2013 at 11:34 PM · Report this
Great piece!
To learn more about Chief Pugel's efforts on Capitol Hill and to find out what you can do, go to
Posted by MBL on August 15, 2013 at 7:33 AM · Report this
Needles are not only used by people injecting illegal drugs.
Ever hear of injecting insulin for diabetes? Many people share their needles with neighbors because they can't afford to buy needles for their insulin.
Other lifesaving medications are injected. Don't assume that all needles exchanged are coming from people using illegal drugs!
Posted by Judi Backof on August 15, 2013 at 7:25 PM · Report this

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