AIDS 2014: Criminalisation of drug use fuels the pandemic
“In most countries possession of drugs is a criminal offence; this has created aggressive law enforcement which has had disastrous consequences. The drug war has failed and law enforcement has resulted in a major health crisis. One in five drug users have HIV. Two in three have hepatitis,” says Michel Kezacthkine from the Global Commission on Drug Policy.
Kezatchkine was speaking at a press conference on reforming drug policies to end HIV AIDS among people who use drugs at the AIDS 2014 conference. Kezatchkine drew attention to the connections between health, drugs and HIV and how countries that have implemented harm reduction strategies have reduced the rate of infection, while others where harm reduction is not employed have seen expanding epidemics.
Former Justice Michael Kirby outlined the Global Commission on HIV and the Law’s key themes and recommendations. Firstly, he said, it needed to be recognized that the law as it stands is having an adverse effect on the epidemic.
“If you criminalise and penalise people in the marginal groups: MSM, sex workers, people who use drugs, prisoners, refugees and other vulnerable groups - if you stigmatise and criminalise them - you don’t get into their minds. So they don’t know how important it is to take the test, to have the care and treatment that will be good for them and act as a prevention as it will reduce their viral load and not be a risk to others”.
Kirby said the Global Commission’s recommendations were simple:
“All systems of compulsory detention of people who use drugs should be abolished, as it alienates people from society. National registrations of drug users should be abolished. It's hostile and not a harm reduction way of acting and alienates people from messages central to their own protection,” he said.
“Thirdly there should be a ban on laws that prohibit needle exchange. The fourth is an enactment of laws that decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use and the removal of the heavy hand of the law in the so called war on drugs. The fifth recommendation was international law should be reformed.”
The recommendations were echoed by Alex Wodak, a leading physician who specialises in harm reduction at St Vincent’s hospital.
“There are many connections between drugs and HIV infection. But we soon learned how to control the epidemic in drugs users,” Wodak commented. “Those measures are effective, inexpensive and in sharp contrast to the efforts to try to control drug use and supply of drug use - which has been an abject failure.
“It has been a comprehensive failure and it has also been extraordinarily expensive - the contrast could not be more stark. The inexpensive harm reduction versus the extensive drug war.”
Judy Byrne offered a more personal response to the war on drugs, saying “HIV saved my life” explaining before HIV there had been no real support for drug user sucjh as herself and a methodone program did not exist. “We had no harm reduction”.
Byrne who works in advocacy and support for people who use intravenous drugs said her day is often punctuated by a “litany of abuses” . She described drug use as a part of the human condition
“Most people use drugs in some way shape or form” she said. “A war on drugs is a war on us. We need action to go behind the words.”
New Zeeland Assistant Health Minister Peter Dunne spoke of the recent change to legislature in his country which decriminalized psychoactive drugs. He suggested they introduced the bill to protect New Zealand’s youth and that the country needed to move from a law enforcement model to one that saw drug use as a health and social issue.
Finally Svetlana Moroz provided unique insight into the plight of people living in the Ukraine , which previously employed a Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST) but after the nation was occupied by Russia access to OST was banned as methadone programs are illegal in Russia.
Moroz said the decision to remove the methadone program was having a disastrous response for those who use intravenous drugs in the Crimea.
A short video was shown in which a Crimean woman spoke of her despair since the program had ceased.
She said: “Without OST it will all be over. My life, which I struggled hard to piece together will be finished. My world has lost all its colours and I don’t even want to breathe. They need to help. Otherwise they should just collect us all and dispose of us.”