The XIX International AIDS Conference took place in Washington, DC, last week, bringing more than 20,000 scientists, activists, government officials, and journalists to assess the science and determine best practices for reducing the spread of the HIV virus. The US was able to host the conference for the first time in 22 years after it finally repealed a law denying people with HIV admission to the country.
Drug users and sex workers who wanted to attend the conference were thus faced with a dilemma: Tell the truth and be barred or lie on the visa application, which in itself is a violation of US immigration law. As a result, representatives of some of the groups most affected -- and most likely to be affected in the future -- were unable to attend.
"People do not want to run the risk of attending the conference in a country where they are told they are not wanted or desired," said Allan Clear, the executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "It sends the message that people who have a history of drug use or sex work are not actually included in the dialog at all, and is a serious setback in the fight against AIDS. I don't think the US government has any particular interest in actually involving sex workers or drug users in policy or programming."
The exclusion of drug users and sex workers hasn't gone down well with activists. As far back as two years ago at the Vienna AIDS conference, Indian activist Meena Seshu called for a boycott of AIDS 2012, pointing out that it was unethical three decades into the AIDS epidemic to discuss AIDS policy without including those most affected. Some have boycotted the conference, opting instead to attend a Kiev conference that began July 9 for drug users and people living with HIV from Eastern Europe. Sex workers and their allies followed with a side meeting in Kolkata this week. While those two events are officially considered "hubs" of the International AIDS Conference, many attended them as a means of protesting the exclusion of drug users and sex workers in Washington.
Unhappiness broke into the open in Washington Monday when dozens of drug user and sex workers activists disrupted the conference's opening press event. They leapt from their seats unexpectedly and marched through the room, waving banners and shouting slogans such as "No drug users? No sex workers? No International AIDS conference!"
Discontent with AIDS policies that marginalize drug users and sex workers escaped from the conference rooms and onto the streets again on Tuesday, as hundreds marched to the White House chanting "No More Drug War" in a rally timed to coincide with the conference. The march broadened the scope of protest, linking the battle against AIDS with the war on drugs and corporate domination of US political life.
On the way to the White House, protestors stopped at UPS and Wells Fargo facilities to chide those corporations for unhelpful practices. UPS took heat for donating to politicians who voted to restore the federal ban on needle exchange funding, and Wells Fargo for investing in private prisons.
"Wells Fargo is literally invested in locking more people up," said Laura Thomas of Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).
Activism around drug users and AIDS also took place in the conference's Global Village, including the installation of a model of Vancouver's Insite supervised injection site and tours of a local needle exchange outreach van courtesy of DC's Family and Medical Counseling Services. The Harm Reduction and Global Drug Policy Zone in the village also featured special events and presentations put on by groups including the Harm Reduction Coalition, Harm Reduction International, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network, and the International Network of People Who Use Drugs.
Advocates also took advantage of the AIDS conference to unleash a campaign on the theme of "You Can't End AIDS Unless You End the Drug War." Articles to that effect appeared on Alternet and the Huffington Post (and were picked up elsewhere), while Global Commission on Drug Policy member Richard Branson penned a USA Today op-ed piece on how drug prohibition contributes to the spread of HIV. As part of the same campaign, Politico ran a full-page ad signed by Global Commission members and other notables, repeating the message and directly challenging both President Obama and Gov. Romney to "do the right thing." Giants in AIDS advocacy like Michael Kazatchkine and Stephen Lewis joined the calls in speeches given during the conference.
In an unexpected cap to things, former President Bill Clinton called for drug use to be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal justice one, in remarks at the closing plenary. Clinton cited The Huffington Post and Alternet op-eds, coauthored by the Drug Policy Alliance's Ethan Nadelmann and American Foundation for AIDS Research founder Matthilde Krim.
Activists demanding a larger role for drug users and sex workers in setting the policies that are supposed to help them fight AIDS came armed with powerful ammunition. Two recent reports clearly lay out how criminalizing drug use helps spread the disease and how many countries are failing to adequately deal with the spread of HIV among injection drug users.
The first report, from the Global Commission on Drug Policy, makes its findings clear in its title: "The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS: How Criminalization of Drug Use Fuels the Global Pandemic." In the report, the commission noted that injection drug use now accounts for one-third of new HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa, including some 354,000 people in the US.
"Throughout the world, research has consistently shown that repressive drug law enforcement practices force drug users away from public health services and into hidden environments where HIV risk becomes markedly elevated," the commission said. "Mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders also plays a major role in spreading the pandemic."
The commission also remarked on "the remarkable failure" of drug prohibition in reducing the global drug supply. The worldwide supply of illicit opiates, such as heroin, has increased almost four-fold in recent decades, the commissioners noted. They also noted the drug war's contribution to the growth of organized crime and violence.
The commission identified proven addiction treatment and evidence-based public health measures that countries should put in place to reduce the spread of HIV and protect community health and safety. They include needle exchange programs, safer injecting facilities, and prescription heroin programs.
"Failure to take these steps is criminal," the commission said.
In the second report, "The Global State of Harm Reduction 2012: Towards an Integrated Response," from the London-based Harm Reduction International (formerly the International Harm Reduction Association), researchers found that while injection drug use has been identified in 158 countries, only half of them have any programs aimed at preventing the spread of HIV among injectors, and the situation internationally is not improving. Even in countries that are addressing the problem, programs suffer from lack of funding and donor support is decreasing. That is undermining the global response to AIDS, the report concluded.
"In the last two years, we have seen a significant scale-down of services in countries with some of the highest HIV burdens among people who inject drugs," said Rick Lines, the group's executive director. "As tens of thousands gather in Washington this week to call for an end to AIDS, it is becoming increasingly clear that governments have neither the will nor the intention of ending the spread of HIV among people who use drugs."
"We have seen the number of needle exchange programs in Russia drop for 70 in 2010 to only six in 2012. This is made worse by a retreat of many bilateral and multilateral donors to funding effective harm reduction interventions in many countries," said Claudia Stoicescu, public health analyst at Harm Reduction International and author of the report. "Such developments significantly limit progress toward global commitments to halve HIV transmission related to unsafe injecting by 2015, let alone any hope of achieving universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for people who inject drugs."
"The reluctance of governments to fund an adequate response to HIV and injecting drug use stands in stark contrast to the seemingly limitless budgets for ineffective and punitive law enforcement responses," said Lines. "Governments care more about fighting a losing war on drugs than they do about winning the fight against HIV."
As the world enters its fourth decade of living -- and dying -- with HIV/AIDS, this week's conference and its barriers to participation by and concern for some of those most directly affected by the crisis -- drug users and sex workers -- demonstrate how far we still have to go. They also make achingly clear the destructive role that drug prohibition and the criminalization of marginalized populations play in perpetuating the epidemic.
Maybe next time the International AIDS Society will hold its conference someplace where drug users and other marginalized groups can attend and be heard. Or maybe the United States will alter its harsh visa requirements aimed at drug users and sex workers. Either one would be good. Ending drug prohibition, the stigma it generates, and the obstacles to fighting disease it engenders would be better.