Six Former Presidents, Richard Branson and Other World Leaders: Criminalization of Drug Use Fuels the Global HIV/AIDS Pandemic

Yesterday was an exciting day for SSDP, several students and our executive director, Aaron Houston, participated in the United Nations International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking (more on that in an upcoming blog post!) and the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a groundbreaking report highlighting the connection between the HIV pandemic and drug policy. The report is being released in anticipation to the International AIDs Conference which is being held in Washington DC from July 22-27, 2012. Drug policy activists will join HIV/AIDs experts during that week and emphasize the need for comprehensive harm reduction strategies to combat increasing HIV infections. There are currently an estimated 33 million people worldwide living with HIV and injection drug use accounts for up to 1/3 of new HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa. This innovative report recommends the use of safer injection facilities, sterile syringe exchange and prescription heroin programs.

Beyond making concrete policy recommendations, this report highlights how combatting HIV has been successful in countries where addiction is treated as a health issue, rather than as a judicial issue. In countries such as Portugal and Switzerland, newly diagnosed HIV infections have been almost eliminated among people who use drugs. During the official launch of the report, former President of Switzerland, Ruth Dreifuss, urged countries to make public health issues more important than drug enforcement. This coincides with research, which has shown that mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders has played a major role in spreading the HIV pandemic.

As young people and students, SSDP recognizes the importance of highlighting connections between drug policy and other social justice issues such as the HIV/AIDs pandemic. We have experienced how drug policy affects other aspects of life through the criminalization of drug users and the lack of quality drug education, which ultimately heightens vulnerability. To read the entire report, please click here.

Summary of Recommendations:

The following action must be taken by national leaders and the United Nations Secretary General, as well as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNAIDS and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs:

1. Acknowledge and address the causal links between the war on drugs and the spread of HIV/AIDS, drug market violence and other health (e.g., hepatitis C) and social harms.

2. Respond to the fact that HIV risk behavior resulting from repressive drug control policies and under-funding of evidence-based approaches is the main issue driving the HIV epidemic in many regions of the world.

3. Push national governments to halt the practice of arresting and imprisoning people who use drugs but do no harm to others.

4. Replace ineffective measures focused on the criminalization and punishment of people who use drugs with evidence-based and rights-affirming interventions proven to meaningfully reduce the negative individual and community consequences of drug use.

5. Countries that under-utilize proven public health measures should immediately scale up evidence-based strategies to reduce HIV infection and protect the health of persons who use drugs, including sterile syringe distribution and other safer injecting programs. Failure to take these steps is criminal.

6. The public and private sectors should invest in an easily accessible range of evidence-based options for the treatment and care for drug dependence, including substitution and heroin-assisted treatment. These strategies reduce disease and death, and also limit the size and harmful consequences of drug markets by reducing the overall demand for drugs.

7. All authorities—from the municipal to international levels—must recognize the clear failure of the war on drugs to meaningfully reduce drug supply and, in doing so, move away from conventional measures of drug law enforcement “success” (e.g., arrests, seizures, convictions), which do not translate into positive effects in communities.