The group, which includes former presidents of Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Poland, Switzerland and Brazil, blames “aggressive law enforcement practices targeting drug users” for raising barriers to HIV treatments that are shown to reduce the disease’s spread. Their report claims these policies have driven a political atmosphere in which “evidence-based addiction treatment and public health measures have been downplayed or ignored.”
To address these problems, the commission urges the United Nations to officially recognize that the drug war is “the main reason” for the HIV/AIDS epidemic in certain parts of the world, and to respond with evidence-based solutions like supporting clean needle exchanges, safe injection centers and doctor-administered addiction therapies.
Similar steps were taken in Greece before the country plunged into financial crisis, but as budgets dried up those programs were removed, and medical authorities soon noticed a massive 1,450 percent increase in HIV infections. Many of those inflected people have since become entangled in the country’s criminal justice system, which makes addressing their risk-taking behaviors even more difficult and exposes them to general prison populations.
“Failure to take these steps is criminal,” the report says. “The war on drugs has failed, and millions of new HIV infections and AIDS deaths can be averted if action is taken now.”
The Commission adds that law enforcement policies which emphasize strict enforcement measures against drug users over distributors tend to drive HIV-positive people away from treatment services, even in communities where they are available.
The main reason for that is “fear,” an unnamed Russian heroin addict told the Commission, according to its report. “This is the very main reason,” she said. “And not only fear of being caught, but fear that you will be caught, and you won’t be able to get a fix. So on top of being pressured and robbed [by police], there’s the risk you’ll also end up being sick. And that’s why you’ll use whatever syringe is available right then and there.”
The report also blames mass incarceration for helping drive HIV infections. Citing U.S. statistics that say up to one-fourth of all HIV positive Americans filter through the nation’s jails each year, where authorities have so far been unable to stop the flow of illegal drugs, including heroin. In those settings, needles are often reused and shared by inmates, some of whom later have unprotected sex with each other, causing outbreaks of HIV in densely populated prisons.
“While the war on drugs has been fueling the HIV epidemic in many regions, other law enforcement bodies and UN agencies have been actively pursuing an aggressive drug law enforcement agenda at the expense of public health,” the commission’s report concludes. “Any sober assessment of the impacts of the war on drugs would conclude that many national and international organizations tasked with reducing the drug problem have actually contributed to a worsening of community health and safety. This must change.”
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