Saturday, February 14, 2009

Harm Reduction Coalition Policy Update: The Obama Administration, Federal Ban on Syringe Exchange

Dear Colleagues:

Here is the first issue of the Harm Reduction Coalition Policy Newsletter.

It features an update on the Mental Health and Substance Use Professionals Sign-on Letter to President Obama that many of you signed. I have heard through the grapevine that politicians and drug policy people on all sides of the debate and at the highest levels were very aware of our efforts and the letter may have played a role in Rep. Ramstad not being selected for the Drug Czar position. You may have heard that Gil Kerlikowske, former police chief of Seattle was just selected for the Drug Czar position. While not a public health or substance use treatment specialist, there seem to be many good things to say about him including that while he was Seattle's police chief, he policed a city with some of the most progressive drug policy in the country turning from a criminal justice to a public health approach to substance use.

For those of you who haven't yet, there is still time to sign on to the letter to put in a vote for science and rationality rather than ideology at the helm of SAMHSA. The director of SAMHSA has not yet been selected. Visit my blog accessed on my website on the lower left of the homepage to read letters and journalists' opinions about this issue.

Sign the letter if you agree with our position! And, please forward this to others whom you think may be interested in the issue. This is an ongoing work in progress. As Russell Simons said at a recent conference at the New York Academy of Medicine, We elected them on their promises and now we need to keep the heat up to make them follow through!


Andrew Tatarsky, PhD
Harm Reduction Psychotherapy and Training Associates
New York City


Harm Reduction Coalition Policy Update, February 2009

Special Federal Edition

A new administration and a new Congress promise new opportunities for harm reduction advocates. This inaugural edition of the Harm Reduction Coalition Policy Update will map out some of the possibilities.

Inside This issue:

  • The Obama Administration
  • Federal Ban on Syringe Exchange
  • Harm Reduction In the News

Click here to view online PDF of newsletter w/ photographs


Sign of the times: “The President also supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users.”-- posted on the White House website as soon as President Obama was sworn in to office.

Officials and key staff in federal agencies charged with tackling drug user health issues have for years kept harm reduction at arms length, with issues such as syringe exchange treated as politically radioactive. The Obama administration offers hope that harm reduction will finally have a place in the policies and priorities of federal government, after years of dismissal, silence, distortion, and suppression.

At this time, permanent appointments to key posts – the directors for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), and the ONDCP (Office of National Drug Control Policy), and the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator – have not been announced.

An early rumor that the Obama transition team was considering former Congressman James Ramstad (R, MN) for ONDCP Director (commonly known as the “Drug Czar”) sparked a petition drafted by Dr. Andrew Tatarsky of Harm Reduction Psychotherapy and Training Associates challenging Ramstad’s qualifications based on factors including his voting record against syringe
exchange. The petition has been signed by over 450 substance abuse and mental health treatment professionals to date.

For now, ONDCP counsel Edward Jurith has been named interim director. Of particular
concern to harm reduction advocates is a letter that he wrote to the New York Times, published
October 9, 2001, when he was last acting ONDCP director under the Bush administration, in response to an article on DanceSafe ‘’Harm reduction’ is a political movement, not sound policy
based on science. Far from reducing harm, its advocates promote policies that lead to increased usage rates and a false sense of security for Ecstasy users.

“Research, not rhetoric, should be used to educate potential drug users. So-called harm reduction programs only obfuscate the truth: Ecstasy has been proven to cause longterm
brain damage resulting in memory loss, depression, paranoia and confusion. At best, harm reduction is an approach that concedes drug abuse prevention is impossible.Pretending harmful activity will be reduced if it is passively condoned is irresponsible."

“Increasing help for those dependent on drugs is better than decreasing harm”

HRC will continue to monitor these appointments and demand that officials in key roles at federal agencies and offices demonstrate an understanding of the role and value of harm reduction, a respect for science and evidence in guiding policy, and a commitment to rejecting the previous administration’s politicization of harm reduction.


Momentum continues to increase towards lifting the ban prohibiting the use of federal funds for syringe exchange. Rep. Jose Serrano (D, NY) has reintroduced The Community AIDS and Hepatitis Prevention Act (H.R. 179), which would eliminate all restrictions on use of federal funding for syringe exchange. The bill currently has 39 cosponsors, listed here (

HRC is asking everyone to contact your member of Congress and urge them to cosponsor the bill. Take action here.

HRC is also leading a grassroots campaign to lift the ban, and seeking coordinators in every state. If you’re interested in spending a few hours a week volunteering, contact Hilary McQuie at (510) 444-6969 or later in February, and work to make sure that language extending the ban is removed from the annual spending bills (known as Appropriations). Background materials and advocacy documents are available on HRC’s website here.

Harm Reduction in the News

HRC’s Executive Director Allan Clear has been blogging about harm reduction policy and the
Obama administration at Alter-Net and the Huffington Post

Obama's HIV Fix: Syringe Exchange Is a Major Component
(posted January 17, 2009)

Obama's Choice: Sane U.N. Drug Policy or the Same Old Failed War-on-Drugs Routine?
(posted January 27, 2009)

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