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Landmark report says drug war fuels the global HIV epidemic

The global drug war is a failure and is fuelling the HIV pandemic among people who use drugs and their partners.  That's the conclusion of the groundbreaking report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy released today.  The landmark report - the second report issued by the Commission - condemns the drug war and calls for "immediate, major reforms" to global drug policy, including dismantling of the prohibition scheme in place across the world and implementaton of a public health approach to drugs, including supervised injection, sterile syringe access, and prescription heroin programs.  Failure to take such steps, notes the Commission, is criminal.

The Commission, based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is made up of a stellar lineup of world leaders, including the former presidents of Poland, Columbia, Mexico, Brazil, Greece, Chile, and Switzerland; George Schultz, the former Secretary of State of the US; Javier Solana, the Former EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy of Spain; Lousie Arbour, Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada; and Richard Branson, entrepreneur.

The report is being released in advance of the International AIDS Conference, the world's largest gathering of HIV and AIDS experts.  the conference will be held in the U.S. for the first time in 22 years, from July 22-27 in Washington D.C.  Pivot Litigation Director Katrina Pacey and Pivot Executive Director Peter Wrinch will be attending the conference this year.  Katrina will be presenting two posters on the work of Pivot that directly affects people with HIV/AIDS:  one looking at how scientific evidence was incorporated into the Insite court case, and the other examining the legal challenge to prostitution laws.

The report notes that throughout the world, prohibition and repressive law enforcement has forced drug use into the margins of society, away from public health resources and into hidden environments where HIV risk escalates.  Mass incarceration of nonviolent drug users also drives the spread of disease.  Today, states the report, there are over 33 million people across the world living with HIV/AIDS.  Injection drug use counts for one-third of all new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa.  Despite huge expense and massive efforts at curtailing the exchange and use of drugs across the world, enforcement measures have done little to reduce the supply of illicit drugs.  Opiate supply, such as heroin, has increased by more than 380 percent in recent decades.  The Commission report also stresses the drug war's contribution to the growth of organized crime and violence.

 

The report makes 11 recommendations.  It's worth setting them out here:

1. Break the taboo. Pursue an open debate and promote policies that effectively reduce consumption, and that prevent and reduce harms related to drug use and drug control policies. Increase investment in research and analysis into the impact of different policies and programs.

2. Replace the criminalization and punishment of people who use drugs with the offer of health and treatment services to those who need them.

3. Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs (with cannabis, for example) that are designed to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.

4. Establish better metrics, indicators and goals to measure progress.

5. Challenge, rather than reinforce, common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug  dependence.

6. Countries that continue to invest mostly in a law enforcement approach (despite the evidence) should focus their repressive actions on violent organized crime and drug traffickers, in order to reduce the harms associated with the illicit drug market.

7. Promote alternative sentences for small-scale and first-time drug dealers.

8. Invest more resources in evidence-based prevention, with a special focus on youth.

9. Offer a wide and easily accessible range of options for treatment and care for drug dependence, including substitution and heroin-assisted treatment, with special attention to  those most at risk, including those in prisons and other custodial settings.

10. The United Nations system must provide leadership in the reform of global drug policy. This means promoting an effective approach based on evidence, supporting countries to  develop drug policies that suit their context and meet their needs, and ensuring coherence among various UN agencies, policies and conventions.

11. Act urgently: The war on drugs has failed, and policies need to change now.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy was formed for the purpose of "bring[ing] to the international level an informed, science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harms caused by drugs to people and societies." The Commission examines how efforts at the eradication of production and criminalization of consumption have failed by not reducing drug traffic or use.  Instead, the war on drugs has fueled corruption, violence and violation of human rights, which has eclipsed the harms of drugs themselves.  As stated on their website:

No country has come up with a fully satisfactory set of policies. The polarization between legalization and prohibition blocks the debate. In many countries repressive policies remain firmly in place. Hence the need for engaging many actors – legislators and policymakers, scientists and health professionals, educators, law enforcement officers, parents and the young – in a constructive debate about viable alternatives, both at the national and international level.

To this end, the Commission has the following goals:

  • review the basic assumption, effectiveness and consequences of the ‘war on drugs’ approach
  • evaluate the risks and benefits of different national responses to the drug problem
  • develop actionable, evidence-based recommendations for constructive legal and drug policy reform