Needle Exchanges Face A Fight In Congress The Centers for Disease Control says needle exchanges can help fight HIV. But these programs are under fire on Capitol Hill from critics who say they put children at risk.
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Needle Exchanges Face A Fight In Congress

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Needle Exchanges Face A Fight In Congress

Needle Exchanges Face A Fight In Congress

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

When Congress takes up the next federal budget, it'll consider two small amendments that could have a big impact. Those amendments would dramatically restrict needle exchanges, programs that encourage intravenous drug users to swap their dirty needles for clean ones. There's lots of evidence that needle exchanges reduce the spread of HIV, but they're often opposed by critics who say they encourage drug use.

One of our producers, Petra Mayer, spent an afternoon riding around the streets of Washington, D.C., with the people behind one of the city's largest and oldest needle exchange programs.

PETRA MAYER: We are on the corner of 5th Street and L, Northeast.

Ms. MARY BETH LEVIN (Director of Programs and Services, PreventionWorks): Sir, can I offer you some condoms and magazine?

MAYER: Meet Mary Beth Levin, the director of programs and services for PreventionWorks. She's not having a whole lot of luck with the AIDS awareness magazine, but plenty of guys are taking condoms and giving her sly grins in return. Every day, a team of PreventionWorks volunteers rides around town in a beat-up old RV offering condoms, information, clean needles and HIV testing. Every day, they park here on this corner for an hour or two. It's important to keep a regular routine; that way, their clients can find them.

Ms. LEVIN: All right. Come on in. You got a generally exchange your works here.

Ms. HAZEL SMITH (Volunteer, PreventionWorks): Hey, baby.

Unidentified Man: Hey, ma'am. How are you doing?

Ms. SMITH: How are you doing (unintelligible)?

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible).

Ms. SMITH: Oh, (unintelligible).

MAYER: That last voice you hear there is Hazel Smith. She's a volunteer. And like many of the volunteers at PreventionWorks, she's a recovering addict. She also used to be homeless. And she says now that she's clean, she wants to give a little something back.

Ms. SMITH: I come on the van or I'm on the street, and I, like, try to let people know that people love them. I love them.

MAYER: Throughout the afternoon, people climb on and off the RV. They bring in their old needles and they leave laden down with food, pamphlets and, of course, clean needles.

Dr. Philip Terry is the director of PreventionWorks.

Dr. PHILIP TERRY (Director, PreventionWorks): We take clean syringes, we take access to health care, we take access to treatment, access to detox, we take it to the people where they are, where it's needed most.

MAYER: But taking needle exchange to public places has long been controversial. And here's where things get a little complicated. Congress actually banned the use of any federal funding for needle exchanges back in 1988. So both the House and Senate passed bills this year that would end the band, and then they tacked on restrictions forbidding federal funding of needle exchanges within a thousand feet of schools and pretty much anywhere they're might be children.

And the situation is even more complex here in Washington. Congressman Jack Kingston, a Republican from Georgia, has added an amendment to next year's D.C. appropriations bill that would ban not just funding, but any needle exchanges within that thousand-foot limit.

Representative JACK KINGSTON (Republican, Georgia): There's a mixed signal when we're telling kids stay off drugs, but in some cases 200 feet away, we're allowing people to exchange needles. And we think, you know, if you got to do it, just keep out of sight of children.

Ms. LEVIN: Well, we joke that the only two places where we could legally do needle exchange would be in graveyards and in the middle of the Potomac. But actually more accurately, it'd be in the middle of some national parks, and on the steps of the Capitol are pretty much the only places which we would not be in conflict with the current law.

MAYER: Mary Beth Levin of PreventionWorks says helping addicts exchange needles safely can actually clean up parks and playground. And needle exchange does seem to help stem the tide of HIV transmission.

The Centers for Disease Control calls it an effective part of comprehensive HIV prevention programs. And in 2000, then-surgeon general Dr. David Satcher issued a report saying needle exchanges are quote, "an effective public health intervention that reduces the transmission of HIV and does not encourage the use of illegal drugs."

For volunteer Hazel Smith, it's not the statistics, but the human connection that matters.

Ms. SMITH: I didn't know that these type of trucks existed when I was out. I was just an addict on the street, walking from here to there, sleeping here and there, and nobody ever seemed like they cared. You know, they have to learn how to love themselves. But I'll love you until you learn how to love yourself.

MAYER: Petra Mayer, NPR News, Washington.

RAZ: You can see photos that Petra took of the needle exchange program at our Web site,

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