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Just as the city is urging an increase in harm reduction and drug treatment programs to tackle the spread of New York’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, a new bill working its way through Washington threatens to criminalize the people who run them.

On May 23, the 21-member NYC Commission on HIV/AIDS released a draft report for public comment outlining 16 key measures to halt the spread of infection.

Two of the top suggestions, after condom distribution, are that the city expand drug treatment and harm reduction programs, such as community outreach services, treatment advocacy and needle exchange. Yet these are in direct conflict with a new bill that has just passed out of subcommittee in Washington.

If enacted, The Safe Access to Drug Treatment and Child Protection Act, introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), will, among other things, introduce a mandatory two-year minimum prison sentence for anyone who fails to report within 24 hours drug-related offenses of family, friends or neighbors. The law would also apply to social service providers working with patients in recovery.

Opponents say that the laws will both criminalize drug treatment professionals and fundamentally undermine the trust that is essential for their work.

“I think laws like this are more likely to drive the issue underground and make it much more difficult to do the work we do,” said Jason Farrell, executive director of Positive Health Project, a Manhattan-based organization that provides HIV/AIDS support services, including needle exchange programs, to more than 4,000 clients in and around Chelsea. “People are going to be more leery of asking for help because they might end up in jail,” he said.

Beyond New York, the bill would go even further. Under wording designed to prohibit the sale of drug-related paraphernalia, it may also become a federal crime in some states, punishable by up to three years in prison, to supply free syringes for intravenous drug use. New Yorkers, however, will not be affected by this provision because the bill exempts states with local laws that explicitly authorize needle distribution. In other states, such as Alabama, Texas and South Carolina, which don’t have needle exchange programs, advocates are concerned that the legislation would be used as a further obstacle to their inception.

The bill’s opponents expect the legislation to pass out of the Judiciary Committee—of which Sensenbrenner is chair—to the Senate but are uncertain of its chances of becoming law. The bill was first introduced last June but lost momentum in the run up to the elections. Neither Rep. Sensenbrenner, nor anyone involved in the drafting of the bill were available for comment.

“In the House, everyone is trying to be tougher than thou, but hopefully it will face a much more deliberate process in the Senate,” said Nkechi Taifa, senior policy analyst for the Open Society Policy Center. Taifa explained that the Senate is still waiting to see the repercussions of a recent Supreme Court decision, which increased judicial discretion in the sentencing process.

Critics say mandatory minimums of any type are bad public policy. “Judges can’t consider any mitigating factors, they are often forced to enforce harsh sentences” said Taifa. “I mean there are already tough laws on the books, you’re talking total overkill.”

—Dan Bell

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