Drug Policy Goes Around, Comes Around

(Updated below) With our former police chief off to DC to be the "Drug Czar", there's been a lot of speculation about what we'll end up doing for federal drug policy. (Not much, says Norm Stamper, in his inaugural turn as a P-I columnist.) But then there's the question of what federal drug policy will end up doing for us.

At a UN drug strategy conference in Vienna yesterday, Obama Assistant Secretary of State David Johnson announced that the Administration intends to provide federal funding for needle exchanges. (This was long rumored to be the case.)

The aim, he said, was to establish a policy based on public health needs. "This will result in a policy that is broader and stronger than the one we had in the past."

This is a no-brainer: opposing needle exchanges is like supporting abstinence-only education. (Here's a fact sheet on the former.)

Update (more quotes, info): King County has one of the lowest HIV-infection rates among injection drug users, notes County Health communications manager James Apa, who credits the county's needle exchange program. Nevertheless, despite its successes, Apa estimates that the program gets only roughly 10-20% of the used needles out of distribution. And several other exchanges are just scraping by. Street Outreach Services lost its local funding after numerous disputes with the city, including over where it set up; current provider People's Harm Reduction Alliance relies on private donations and whatever else it can scrap together.

Apa says that federal funding "will be a very welcome development. It's something that's been on our legislative agenda for several years." What it will mean for the county's exchange program though, he says is less clear. It may just mean that federal money the county already receives is no longer prohibited from going into its exchange program. But for municipalities without pre-existing exchanges, or where exchanges are considered more controversial, federal approval of the programs may make a big difference.

So despite Joe Biden's history as a drug warrior, it looks like the Obama Administration may be providing Kerlikowske an opportunity to do some real good--including here in Seattle.

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