White House Moves to Fund Needle Exchanges as Drug Treatment
||Washington Examiner (DC)
||Tuesday, February 22, 2011
The Obama administration has designated intravenous needle exchanges as a drug treatment program, allowing federal money set aside to treat addictions to be used to distribute syringes to narcotics users.
The change marks a dramatic shift in the argument over needle exchange programs. Two years ago President Obama lifted the 21-year ban on federally funded needle exchange programs as a necessary evil to reduce the spread of HIV among illicit drug users. The new position, determined by the surgeon general, is that the states can receive federal funding for programs that hand out the syringes as a treatment.
"It doesn't pass any serious test of rationality," said John P. Walters, the former drug czar under President George W. Bush. "It's like the surgeon general deciding that handing out lighters is a good way to help people to stop smoking. It's at least that absurd, and the consequences are even greater given the risks involved in IV drug use."
The notice was posted late Friday before the three-day Presidents Day weekend.
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin told The Washington Examiner that needle exchange programs can serve as a gateway to treatment for drug addiction, HIV and other diseases.
"This determination, based on years of scientific research, will permit states and territories to use Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant funds for what had formerly been termed 'needle exchange,' " Benjamin said.
The notice cited a 11-year-old study in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment that found that addicts who participated in needle exchanges were five times more likely to enter drug treatment.
Dr. Lisa Merlo, an University of Florida assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the Addiction Medicine Public Health Research Group, said individuals who attend needle exchange programs have significantly higher rates of participation in drug abuse treatment programs. Needle exchange programs refer many individuals to drug treatment programs who otherwise might not access those services, she said.
But Dr. Scott Teitelbaum, director of the University of Florida-run Florida Recovery Center, said, "Putting a needle in your arm is not recovery." Teitelbaum said he opposed taking money from legitimate treatment programs to pay for needle exchange.
Dr. Robert L. DuPont, president of the Institute for Behavior and Health in Rockville, said it's possible that addicts will seek treatment after getting clean syringes, but there are more cost-effective ways of getting drug users to seek treatment.
"If someone proposed giving free drinks to treat alcoholism, they'd be laughed out of the building," DuPont said. "But in the drug world, that's considered good science."
A more effective way is to spend the money to go into the shelters and communities hit hard by addictions and bring the addicts into treatment, said DuPont and other drug treatment experts.
Critics say the new policy is a step toward European-style treatment where the government provides the drugs and a clean room to inject them.