A 21-year ban on federal funding for needle-exchange programs (NEPs) came to an end with the signing of an appropriations bill on Wednesday.

The repeal, part of a $163.5 billion labor, health, and education appropriations measure, does not allocate federal funding for needle-exchange initiatives. However, it does make such programs eligible for federal money for NEPs, subject to approval by local police and health officials.

"Hundreds of thousands of Americans will not get HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C, thanks to Congress repealing the federal syringe funding ban," said Bill Piper, spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance.

The federal funding ban was sponsored by the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Robert Martinez, former Florida governor and drug czar under President George H.W. Bush, said government funding of NEPs "undercuts the credibility of society's message that drug use is illegal and morally wrong."

The campaign to free up federal funding for the programs argued that NEPs were effective in reducing disease without increasing drug use itself. Twenty-nine cities with such programs saw HIV infection rates drop by 5.8 percent, while 52 cities without them saw a 5.9 percent increase, according to a 1997 international analysis.

During consideration of the bill, a House-Senate conference committee successfully removed a provision that would have barred federal funding to any program operating within 1,000 feet of a school, park, or day care center, effectively removing much if not all of large urban areas from eligibility.