The War on Drug Addicts – and Everyone Else

When Congressional Republicans rammed through their disastrous consolidated spending bill on Friday, subsidizing abstinence-only education and granting $2 billion per week for the war in Afghanistan, they also locked in a regressive funding cut that would endanger the lives of many thousands of Americans. The bill reinstates a ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs – a ban that was repealed just two years ago, due to overwhelming evidence that the programs dramatically curb the spread of blood-transmitted diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.

Incredibly, when the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee announced the ban's first incarnation in September, it was listed under the heading “Protecting Life.” Conservatives have long framed needle exchange as an incitement to drug use (naturally, if cheap, clean syringes are readily available, hordes of previously uninterested Americans will be inspired into heroin addiction) and a “dopey idea” that deters recovery.

“I am very concerned that we would use federal tax dollars to support the drug habits of people who desperately need help,” argued former Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kansas), the anti-needle-exchange warrior who rallied in favor of the ban each year until his recent retirement.

However, in pushing, and eventually passing, this tragic line item, Tiahrt and his cronies have conveniently ignored some glaring facts about needle exchange. For example, it works: all large-scale scientific studies have demonstrated the program's effectiveness in decreasing the spread of hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS. In fact, HIV rates among intravenous drug users in New York City dropped 75 percent over 10 years after needle exchange programs were implemented.

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Nowadays, these programs are barely controversial. The World Health Organization (WHO) handed them a ringing endorsement in 2004, noting that they benefit non-drug-users, protecting drug users' sexual partners and children. Needle exchange's success is extolled regularly by shrinking-violet Democrats and even the occasional right-winger – Ron Paul reversed his opposition last year, and conservative columnist Steve Chapman wrote a few days ago, “Reviving the prohibition would have a sure effect: killing people.”

Plus, though Republicans are chalking it up as a budget cut, slashing funding for needle exchange is hardly cost-effective. In fact, needle exchange programs cost 12 to 48 times less than providing treatment for HIV-positive people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The resurgent war on drug addicts doesn't stop at needle exchange. In at least 36 states, Republicans have introduced legislation requiring applicants to public assistance programs – including food stamps, unemployment benefits and heating subsidies – to pass a drug test before receiving help. They're selling it as a route to kill two societal ills with one budget-slashing stone. By erecting barriers to aid for all (and denying it to needy people suffering from addiction), these lawmakers claim they'll ameliorate both drug problems and economic hardship.

In fact, according to Ohio state Sen. Tim Schaffer, implementing a drug test mandate will “end the cycle of poverty by referring drug users to treatment and providing safety for children.” He called the new restriction “the compassionate thing to do.”

This nasty legislation now has a sibling at the federal level, thanks to Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Georgia), whose Ensuring the Quality of Unemployment Insurance Program (EQUIP) Act would mandate drug testing for unemployment insurance applicants. Those who failed would not only be denied benefits; they'd have to foot the bill for the test.

Aside from the fact that this wave of legislative cruelty is both Machiavellian and nausea-inducing, it – like the needle-exchange funding ban – is based on patently false pretenses.

Advocates of the testing argue that it will encourage poor and unemployed people to say no to drugs. Kingston, for example, uses an anecdotal tidbit to back up his proposal, saying: “I had an employer tell me of an overwhelming response for job openings. There was just one problem: half the people who applied could not even pass a drug test.”

However, it turns out that public aid applicants are actually less likely to use drugs than most people. Ironically, this statistic was gleaned from the implementation of a welfare-applicant drug-testing law in Florida: only 2.5 percent of applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families tested positive, while about 6 percent of the general population is estimated to engage in illegal drug use.

For the small percentage of welfare recipients who are using, the new testing laws certainly wouldn't “end the cycle of poverty.” It's pretty common knowledge that you can't cure addiction by punishing addicts for their problem. In fact, the laws could increase the likelihood of these would-be aid recipients sinking into worsened addiction, homelessness, hunger – and often, crime. It's tough to recover from anything, let alone severe addiction, when you can't meet your basic needs.

Plus, by wedging in two potentially hefty barriers to public aid (the drug test and the cash to pay for it), these laws make it harder for poor and unemployed Americans to receive the benefits that spur the economy and combat our lingering recession.

With a bogus rationale, a damaging agenda and the facts united against it, why is the war on drug addicts gaining steam? Why didn't Democrats throw thunderous tantrums when needle exchange programs hit the chopping block? Why are drug testing laws creeping insidiously across the states – and even onto Capitol Hill?

Sadly, cuts that hurt the poorest and most vulnerable Americans are often the easiest to adopt. Slashing needle exchange funding was a throwaway measure, a sacrifice that slipped smoothly under the radar. One reason is simple: many of the people who are harmed by this dangerous legislation are partially or wholly disenfranchised. They're not usually financing campaigns or heading up re-election efforts, and often, thanks to voter ID laws and felon disenfranchisement, they can't even vote. So, though a handful of progressives may raise an orderly ruckus when inhumane measures like the needle exchange cuts are tacked onto a bill, those provisions are hardly ever front and center in the national debate.

Policies that facilitate the spread of disease and impede access to crucial public assistance – thwarting the most basic functions of a conscionable society – shouldn't be used as legislative bargaining chips. It's time for Washington to realize that the war on addicts is a war on us all.