THE nation's capital, Washington, D.C., has a dubious distinction. It is also the capital of AIDS infections, with the highest rate of AIDS of any major U.S. city, according to a recent report.
There is another shameful fact about Washington that logic suggests may be linked to the first. For the past nine years, until reason prevailed last week and the law was changed, Washington was the only American city specifically barred by federal legislation from using local funds for programs that provide clean syringes to drug users - a widely accepted strategy to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS.
Unfortunately, since 1998, Congress wouldn't accept the public health benefits of needle-exchange programs that have proved effective elsewhere. And, with its paternalistic oversight of the city's budget spending, myopic members of Congress were in a position to indulge their biases. Two conservative Republicans were able to insert language barring needle exchanges, on the theory that providing clean needles to users contributes to the drug problem and does not curb the spread of infection.
This folly, which effectively trumped a public-health approach with one of moralistic disapproval, has proved in practice a prescription for disaster for many residents of Washington and their families. The city's African-American population has been particularly hard-hit by the epidemic, with HIV and AIDS spreading fastest among black women.
It would be nice to think that these grim facts were decisive in stripping the law of the odious prohibition against needle exchanges. Instead, the change in the law owes more to a change in the leadership of Congress. Because Democrats were prepared to face reality at the intersection of compassion and common sense, President Bush was sent a budget bill that allowed the city to use its own funds for needle exchange programs. On Wednesday, to his credit, Mr. Bush signed the bill.
Washington officials hailed the ban's defeat as a real life-saver and announced that $1 million would be earmarked for the program in 2008. The Democratic-controlled Congress can't claim a long list of great achievements since taking up the reins of power, but little things can make a big difference.
This was one. A blow was struck for good sense in a matter of life and death.
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