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Barbara Lee blasts ‘demagoguing’ on NYPD slayings

Those blaming President Obama, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio or protesters for the shooting deaths of two New York City police officers Saturday are “demagoguing the issues” and doing the nation a disservice, Rep. Barbara Lee said Tuesday.

Barbara Lee (Dec-2010)“As someone who supports nonviolence and gun safety and gun control and peaceful resolutions in Congress, I don’t think there’s any way any of us in the protest movement, in the progressive movement, would condone that” kind of violence, said Lee, D-Oakland, whose own East Bay district has seen clashes between protesters and police in recent weeks.

Everyone should mourn for victims of violence including the slain officers, she said, but protesters should continue calling attention to instances of misconduct.

As with changes that followed the civil rights movement, she said, “it’s not going to come from within, it’s not going to come from (former New York Mayor Rudy) Giuliani and all the powers that be that believe all is well in America. It’s going to come from the people who see the injustice.”

Lee made the comments during a telephone interview in which she laid out her legislative priorities for 2015, which might be summed up as “Back to the Future.”

First and foremost Lee hopes to get Congress to “do our job” and vote on setting parameters for U.S. military involvement in the fight against the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The old, post- 9/11 authorization to use military force – which she famously was the only House member to oppose – should be repealed and replaced with something more focused and timely, she said.

“We all know that ISIS poses a threat and we must address it, but we’ve got to do it in a way that doesn’t create more danger, hostility and anger,” she said.

Asked about a German human-rights group filing war-crime complaints last week against former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and others based on recent reports about the CIA torture program, Lee replied, “I think the international community should deal with it in the way they see fit. … I’m sure people abroad are saying, ‘Wait a minute, the United States must comply with international law.’”

Lee said she’ll redouble her efforts next year to create “pathways out of poverty” and reduce income inequality, reintroducing bills she has carried in past sessions including a plan to halve U.S. poverty in a decade. She authored similar bills in 2011 and 2013.

“We’ve got to help people into the middle class,” she said. “We’ve got to eliminate poverty in the richest country in the world.”

She said she’ll also work to maintain funding for the nation’s HIV/AIDS programs – “We can’t forget that the global and domestic pandemic is still upon us” – and reintroduce her bill from July to create a tax credit for people who are in-home caregivers for their own family members. “I think I’ll get bipartisan support for that.”

She also expects some help from across the aisle in trying to lift the U.S. embargo against Cuba, now that the Obama administration has announced plans to start normalizing relations. She was returning home from her 21st trip to Cuba when that announcement came last week, part of a group of House members and other delegates who went to study that nation’s public-health system.

“I take people down there, particularly members of Congress, so they can make their own decisions … They should be able to see the realities of Cuba,” Lee said, adding she knows many Republicans will see the wisdom in lifting the 50-year old embargo. “I’ve been working on this since ’77 and never gave up home, so I’m not going to give up hope now.”

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Global panel touts drug reforms to stem HIV/AIDS

It’s hard to paint former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz of San Francisco as a drug-loving, latter-day hippie with no regard for the law.

George Shultz (AP photo)Shultz and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, along with 18 other international luminaries, are part of a commission that’s calling for radical changes to the war on drugs in order to stem the tide of new HIV infections.

The report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy comes in advance of the International AIDS Conference, the world’s largest gathering of HIV/AIDS experts, which is being held next month in the U.S. for the first time in 22 years.

The global drug war drives the HIV pandemic among people who use drugs and their sexual partners, the report notes: An estimated 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV, and injection drug use accounts for one-third of new HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa.

The report describes the failure of drug law enforcement policies in reducing global drug supply; for example, the worldwide supply of illicit opiates such as heroin has increased by more than 380 percent in recent decades.

Instead, the commission concludes, nations should be scaling up proven ways of reducing HIV infection such as sterile syringe distribution, safer injecting facilities, and prescription heroin programs. “Failure to take these steps is criminal,” the report states.

Nations that treat addiction as a health issue are winning the fight against HIV, the report notes: In Australia and European countries such as Portugal and Switzerland, newly diagnosed HIV infections have been nearly eliminated among people who use drugs, just as vertical transmission of HIV has been eliminated in countries where broad access to prevention of mother-to-child transmission of the virus is available.

But nations including the U.S., China, Russia and Thailand have ignored scientific evidence and resisted the implementation of evidence-based HIV prevention programs, with devastating consequences, the report says. For example, about one in 100 Russian adults is now infected with HIV; here in the United States, Congress recently reinstated a longstanding ban on the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs, meaning more users are likely to share needles and spread disease.

The report says the costly and wasteful drug war as it’s being fought today drives drug users underground, away from HIV testing and HIV prevention services and into high-risk environments.

The commission is urging national governments to halt the practice of arresting and imprisoning people who use drugs but do no harm to others, and to measure their drug policy success by indicators such as reduced transmission rates for HIV and other infectious diseases, fewer overdose deaths, reduced drug market violence, fewer individuals incarcerated and lowered rates of problematic substance use.

In addition to Shultz and Volcker, the commission also includes the former presidents of Mexico, Poland, Colombia, Brazil, Chile and Switzerland; the former prime minister of Greece; Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson; various former United Nations officials; and others.

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Barbara Lee just back from trip to Uganda

Rep. Barbara Lee has just returned from a five-day trip with CARE – a global anti-poverty group – to Uganda to learn about health, governance, gender and savings in that nation’s cities and countryside.

Lee, D-Oakland, was joined by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.; Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.; CARE CEO Helene Gayle and top UPS executives as they reviewed the success of integrated programs providing a holistic approach to overcoming poverty.

The delegation also visited several health clinics funded by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) that once focused primarily on HIV treatment but have extended programming to address issues such as childhood nutrition and financial literacy. And Lee addressed the 126th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union to discuss the successes and challenges in making the law work for the global AIDS response.

Lee is the U.S. representative to the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, which is finishing a two-year review of research, analysis and community consultations to build an understanding of how legal environments influence HIV epidemics; a final report will be coming soon.

In Uganda, Congresswoman Lee also met John Roberts, the first recipient of antiretroviral drugs funded by the US PEPFAR program. “United States global health leadership is making historic progress, touching the lives of millions of families and communities around the world,” she said in a news release. “Foreign assistance is just a fraction of 1 percent of the federal budget, yet enables PEPFAR and the Global Fund to continue its critical, life-saving work.”

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Obama names Bay Area doctor as ‘HIV/AIDS’ czar

President Obama today named a Bay Area physician as his HIV/AIDS czar.

Dr. Grant ColfaxDr. Grant Colfax, 47, of Sausalito, will leave his post as head of the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s HIV Prevention Section to become director of the Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), which coordinates the government’s efforts to reduce the nation’s number of HIV infections and care for citizens with HIV/AIDS.

“Grant’s expertise will be key as we continue to face serious challenges and take bold steps to meet them,” Obama said in a news release. “I look forward to his leadership in the months and years to come.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, said the appointment “brings enormous pride to many San Franciscans and prestige to our city’s efforts to increase prevention, ensure treatment, and support research.” She said Colfax has been essential in ensuring San Francisco’s decline in new HIV infections, pioneering evidence-based prevention strategies such as monitoring and mapping “community viral load.” The city/county’s model of HIV/AIDS care “has become the national standard, and today, with the appointment of Grant Colfax, President Obama has recognized our efforts,” she said.

ONAP also coordinates with the National Security Council and the State Department’s Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator, and works with international bodies to ensure that America’s response to the global pandemic is fully integrated with other prevention, care, and treatment efforts around the world.

Colfax is Harvard Medical School graduate who completed his medical residency at the University of California, San Francisco. His work in studying HIV testing strategies, clinical trials of medications to treat substance dependence and other HIV prevention methods has been supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And he has been a practicing clinician at the Positive Health Program, San Francisco’s public HIV clinic.

UPDATE @ 2:25 P.M.: Rep. Barbara Lee, who has been a leader in Congress on HIV/AIDS issues, said she looks forward to working with Colfax.

“While we have made tremendous strides over the past thirty years, HIV remains a crisis in our communities – threatening the well-being of our neighborhoods, the health of our families, and the lives of our brothers and sisters,” Lee, D-Oakland, said in a news release. “However, at this moment of time, an extraordinary opportunity is in front of us. Scientific discovery has brought new powerful tools and created a renewed momentum to do what it takes to bring AIDS to an end.”

“This summer, the United States will host the International AIDS Conference for the first time in 20 years – a remarkable opportunity to take aggressive steps to fight the domestic epidemic and partner with countries in this global fight.”

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Brown expands syringe sales & exchanges

Gov. Jerry Brown yesterday signed into law a Bay Area lawmaker’s bill that lets people buy syringes at pharmacies without a prescription – something his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had vetoed one year ago.

Brown also signed another Bay Area lawmaker’s bill to let the state Department of Public Health authorize new syringe exchange programs – a power previously held only by cities and counties – to deal with high rates of hepatitis, HIV and drug use in the state’s rural areas. Both bills take effect Jan. 1.

“This is a huge victory for public health and common sense,” said Laura Thomas, the Drug Policy Alliance’s California deputy director. “Now all Californians will have the same access to proven, effective HIV and hepatitis C prevention. This gives drug users the tools that they need to protect their health and that of their partners, children, and communities, as well as protecting the California taxpayer from the cost of HIV and hepatitis C infections.”

SB 41, by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, expands statewide what had been a pilot program to which city councils or county supervisors could decide whether to opt in and pharmacies could choose to participate. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed Yee’s previous iteration of the bill last October, local officials can make the best decisions for their own jurisdictions; Yee and the bill’s backers had said most counties weren’t opting in, and blood-borne diseases don’t recognize political borders.

“SB 41 will greatly reduce healthcare costs to taxpayers and save lives,” Yee said today, noting that 47 states already let pharmacists sell syringes without a prescription. “(D)iabetics who visit our state may not even have a prescription and come here assuming they can purchase needles at a pharmacy. This new law will also ensure those diabetics or others who need syringes for health purposes will not be stranded here in California without the ability to administer life-saving insulin and other medicines.”

Besides the Drug Policy Alliance, SB 41 was supported by groups including the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the California Academy of Family Physicians, California Nurses Association, California Medical Association, California Pharmacists Association, California Retailers Association, Rite Aid, San Francisco Hepatitis C Task Force, Health Officers Association of California, California Hepatitis Alliance, Equality California, AFSCME, ACLU, AIDS Project Los Angeles, California Psychiatric Association, and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California.

AB 604 by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, lets the state from Jan. 1 through the start of 2019 authorize community organizations to create syringe-exchange programs where cities and counties have balked at doing so.

“California needs a uniform approach to syringe exchange programs, which are endorsed by all major national, state, and international health and medical associations, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association,” Skinner said Monday. “By signing AB 604, Governor Brown is helping ensure we have that kind of uniform approach in California, one based on public health instead of politics.”

The new law requires that if a community group’s application has merit and is from an area of demonstrably high need, CDPH must consult both the local health officer and local law enforcement leadership and then hold a 90-day public comment period before granting or denying the authorization.

Skinner noted Monday that the Obama Administration recently approved use of federal funds for syringe-exchange programs, “so AB 604 will cost nothing to California’s General Fund, yet has the potential to save our state millions in healthcare costs.”

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Schwarzenegger splits the baby on syringe sales

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed a bill that would’ve let pharmacies all over California sell sterile syringes to an adult without a prescription, a measure that health experts called a key protection against the transmission of HIV, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases.

“When I signed legislation my first year in office allowing for a pilot program to allow the sale of syringes through participating counties and registered pharmacies, I was seeking to balance the competing public health, law enforcement and local control issues that this issue requires,” the governor wrote in his veto message. “I believe this balance was achieved and SB 1029 would remove the ability of local officials to best determine policies in their jurisdiction. Some counties have not sought to implement this pilot program, citing competing priorities, lack of pharmacy interest and law enforcement opposition.”

“I respect these local decisions and while I appreciate the author’s hard work and dedication to this issue, I cannot sign this bill,” Schwarzenegger wrote.

The governor instead signed AB 1701 by Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, to extends the existing Disease Prevention Demonstration Project for eight more years, still leaving it to city councils or county supervisors to decide whether to opt in and let pharmacies choose to take part.

But state Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who had authored SB 1029, issued a scathing statement Friday saying the governor apparently “was not interested in an effective public health measure that would reduce health care costs to taxpayers. Not only did he ignore the recommendation of doctors and other health experts, but he ignored the fact that HIV-AIDS and hepatitis do not recognize county borders. Such epidemics are certain to continue without implementing these comprehensive strategies.”

Sharing of used syringes is the most common cause of new hepatitis C infections in California and the second most common cause of HIV infections. The state Department of Public Health estimates that approximately 3,000 California residents contract hepatitis C through syringe sharing every year and another 750 cases of HIV are caused by syringe sharing.

Among SB 1029’s supporters were the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, AIDS Project Los Angeles, American Civil Liberties Union, California Hepatitis Alliance, California Nurses Association, California Psychiatric Association, California Retailers Association, County Alcohol & Drug Program Administrators, Drug Policy Alliance Network, California Medical Association, California Pharmacists Association, City and County of San Francisco, Health Officers Association of California, and Equality California.

It was opposed by the California Narcotic Officers’ Association, California Peace Officers’ Association, California Police Chiefs’ Association and the League of California Cities. The California Narcotic Officers’ Association had opposed Wesbro’s bill, too.

Glenn Backes, a public policy consultant to both the Drug Policy Alliance and the California Hepatitis Alliance, had said in July that Yee’s bill was better than just extending the county-by-county pilot program.

“Basically, if it is good policy for the residents of Bay Area counties, then it is good policy for the residents of Central Valley counties,” Backes said. “Especially given that the indigent ill are a burden on all taxpayers, a burden on the state general fund, no matter where they reside in the state. Allowing adults to spend their own money to protect their health and the health of others is the only proven way to reduce the rate of HIV and hepatitis without spending a dime of city, county or state money.”

Yee said SB 1029’s approach “has been evaluated extensively throughout the world and has been found to significantly reduce rates of HIV and hepatitis without contributing to any increase in drug use, drug injection, crime or unsafe discard of syringes. In fact, there is not one credible study that refutes these findings. The Governor’s veto is a moral and fiscal dilemma.”

Laura Thomas, the Drug Policy Alliance’s deputy state director, said the governor’s veto is “tragic and infuriating”

“It is an irrational attachment to drug war hysteria, at the expense of human life and fiscal responsibility to the California taxpayer,” she said. “Nothing would have worked better and cost less in reducing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C than SB 1029.”