“It’s always a challenge when you’re depending on the Department of Justice to police itself, but at least in this case we have the advantage that it’s being litigated,” DPA senior director of national affairs Bill Piper told Common Dreams on Monday. “The intent is very clear.”

The passage of the measure follows a sea change in public perception of marijuana, as states continue to legalize pot nationwide. Arrests for public consumption have dropped in Washington, D.C. since voters in the district approved recreational marijuana last year, Piper said. Law enforcement has realized “they’re on the losing side of history. We clearly have proved the political support is there. I think there’s a norm that is being set that you shouldn’t waste resources on marijuana, especially in states where it’s legal.”

Ironing out the wrinkles may take time, Piper added. “The DEA is obviously going to be the last agency, probably, to come to their senses on this.”

Nonetheless, legalization advocates were optimistic that the drug reform movement was starting to make significant progress.

Another provision passed within the omnibus lifts a freeze on using federal dollars to support needle exchange programs. The ban on such programs, which allow drug users to hand over used syringes for new, sterile ones to reduce risk of disease, was put into place in 1988 at the height of the AIDS crisis. It was repealed in 2009, then reinstated in the 2011 omnibus after Republicans took control of the House of Representatives.

DPA said outbreaks of HIV in Indiana, along with the increase of heroin use in places like Kentucky and West Virginia, prompted Republicans to rethink their stance on the programs.

“Syringe access programs are a sound public health intervention, rooted in science, and proven to drastically reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C,” DPA’s Collins said. “Lifting this archaic ban will save thousands of lives.”

LEAP called the measure “an incredible victory for public health.”

Frankin told Common Dreams, “Syringe exchange programs save lives. It’s as simple as that. I applaud Congress for finally releasing some funds to implement their use and hope this is the start of a greater trend toward putting public health ahead of politics.”

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