By Stephen Leahy
BERLIN, Jul 14, 2010 (IPS)
The failed “war on drugs” has not only badly damaged countries where it is waged, it is responsible for driving up HIV infection rates in some countries, says an official declaration endorsed Wednesday by three former Latin American presidents in advance of the XVIII International AIDS Conference that begins Jul. 18 in Vienna.
In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, injecting drug use is the primary cause of new HIV infections. Outside of sub- Saharan Africa, injecting drug use accounts for approximately one in three new cases of HIV, experts will report at the week-long meeting.
“The war on drugs has failed…Instead of sticking to failed policies with disastrous consequences, we must direct our efforts to the reduction of consumption and the reduction of the harm caused by drugs to people and society,” said former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
“Repressive policies are firmly rooted in prejudices, fears and ideological visions. The way forward to safeguard human rights, security and health is a strategy of peace not war,” said Cardoso.
Cardoso, along with former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of México and César Gaviria of Colombia, have endorsed the Vienna Declaration that lists a range of harms stemming from the war on drugs, and notes that the criminalisation of people who use drugs has resulted in record high incarceration rates, placing a massive burden on taxpayers.
The declaration calls on countries to undertake a transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies and reform those policies on the basis of science- based evidence and public health objectives.
An estimated 20,000 conference participants will be in Vienna for the international AIDS Conference, and organisers are encouraging them to sign on to the declaration and join the growing call for evidence-based drug policies.
Forty leading scientists and experts worked on the declaration, said Evan Wood, a researcher at Canada’s British Columbia Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and founder of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, a network of scientists, academics and health practitioners.
“The declaration calls for decriminalising drug users because the scientific evidence clearly shows that criminalisation pushes drug users into the margins of society with little access to HIV prevention or other public health services,” Wood told IPS in an interview.
Making drug users criminals is a recipe for the spread of HIV and other diseases, he said. Sharing injection equipment is three times more likely to transmit HIV than sexual intercourse. And that’s why Eastern Europe and Russia and other countries have become HIV infection hotbeds.
In Russia, the number of HIV-infected people increased tenfold from an estimated 100,000 to one million mainly amongst the injecting drug using population. That’s largely the result of policies that reject harm reduction policies such as the use of methadone and needle exchanges.
Harm reduction involves providing access to methadone, needle exchange services, and counseling – a well-proven strategy for reducing illegal drug use, crime and the associated violence and reducing HIV infection rates. Methadone is illegal in Russia, Uzbekistan and other countries. There is no government support for needle exchange programmes in Russia or more than 70 other countries.
While methadone is still legal in Canada, the current Stephen Harper government is withdrawing its support from needle exchange programmes, not because they don’t work but over misplaced morality or ideology, says Reed. “Canada is pulling harm reduction out of its drug strategy and pushing for a much harder line on drug users just like in the U.S.”
Criminalising drug users has become big business in the U.S., where more than two million people are incarcerated, many prisons are for-profit businesses, and billions of dollars are poured into the war on drugs.
Governments and the general public do not understand that the war on drugs is responsible for much of the drug-related crime and violence. Illicit drug trade is all about supply and demand. High-profile arrests of major drug dealers simply leaves a supply shortage and power vacuum that directly leads to increased violence as drug gangs and dealers fight for the extraordinary profitable business, critics say.
“The reality is that hard-line drug enforcement policies do far more harm than good,” said Wood.
A review of 20 years of scientific research last fall revealed that 82 percent of the studies found the various wars on drugs simply increase violence. Mexico is a textbook example.
In 2006, it launched a massive, nationwide counter-narcotics campaign. By 2008, drug violence claimed 6,290 lives in that year alone – double the number from 2007. In first eight weeks of 2009, more than 1,000 people were killed. Since 2006, the total number killed has surpassed 17,000 people, including scores of judges, police, and journalists.
By contrast, Portugal removed criminal penalties for the personal use of all drugs in 2001. HIV infection rates have fallen sharply, as has underage drug-taking. The number of people seeking drug treatment has increased but overall drug use has not increased. Drug dealing remains a crime.
Meanwhile, the U.S., where the war on drugs got started in the 1970s, has the highest rates of cocaine and marijuana use in the world.
“I hope that the Vienna Declaration will inspire many more political leaders to cast aside the drug war rhetoric and embrace evidence-based policies that can meaningfully improve community health and safety,” said AIDS 2010 Chair Dr. Julio Montaner, president of the International AIDS Society.