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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're going to hear now about another issue that's been a source of friction between states and the federal government.

After two decades, Congress has voted to lift a ban on federal funding of needle exchange programs. AIDS activists are cheering the move. They say it legitimizes needle exchange in the fight against HIV/AIDS. From Maine Public Radio, Susan Sharon reports.

SUSAN SHARON: For years, needle exchange programs in three dozen states have provided clean needles to intravenous drug users as a way to reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. But the programs have relied solely on state and local funding because of a longtime ban at the federal level, where some have regarded needle exchange as an incentive for drug addicts to continue to use.

Mr. BILL McCOLL (AIDS Action): People have been afraid that, you know, if this is going to conflict with some sort of zero tolerance policy.

SHARON: Bill McColl is with Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group AIDS Action. He says the vote to lift the ban is a vote for science.

Mr. McCOLL: There are eight federal reports that show that syringe exchange will decrease HIV and hepatitis. It doesn't increase substance abuse. You know, this is a real opportunity to do some serious outreach to a population that is often overlooked.

SHARON: Around the country, the rate of needle exchange continues to increase. According to the North American Syringe Exchange Network, more than 30 million clean needles were distributed last year. Even in a rural state like Maine, the numbers are up. Patsy Murphy is the executive director of the Eastern Maine AIDS Network in Bangor.

Ms. PATSY MURPHY: (Director, Eastern Maine AIDS Network, Bangor): We're at 280 in release, and I'm putting about 4,000 needles out into the community every month.

SHARON: Murphy says many of her clients were originally prescribed painkillers for an injury or illness but, for whatever reason, they started abusing drugs. And when they couldn't get doctors to prescribe them, they started buying drugs on the street.

Jonathan Gagnon(ph) says he started shooting up about six months ago.

Mr. JONATHAN GAGNON: I was at my friend's house and they were shooting up Dilaudid. They said snorting it and popping it would give you nothing like the feeling of shooting it, so I said, okay, let's try it. Once I did it, I fell in love.

SHARON: Gagnon is HIV positive. He comes to the Eastern Maine AIDS Network for support services and counseling, but he also comes to get clean needles. He says he can't take the chance of contracting hepatitis C.

The Bangor program is one of four needle exchanges in Maine and all four are facing budget difficulties. Around the country, there are an estimated 200. Now that federal money could be made available, Bill McColl of AIDS Action hopes more cities will see the benefit of adding them.

Mr. McCOLL: There are a number of states and localities, you know, that don't currently have syringe exchanges, such as Las Vegas or Miami, that I think, you know, have very serious injection drug use issues that I think could benefit from this change.

SHARON: The end of the federal ban on funding does not guarantee additional money for needle exchange programs, but AIDS activists say it's a symbolic achievement that will, at the very least, reinforce an old message that clean needles save lives.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon.

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