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Chronicle AM -- November 26, 2013

Medical marijuana gets attention in the statehouse, another drug war atrocity in New Mexico, Greece's first safe injection site is open, and a gram of opium or a few pounds of pot can get you the death penalty if you're in the wrong place. And more. Let's get to it:

This is three times the amount of opium that could get an immigrant worker executed in Dubai. (erowid.org)
Medical Marijuana

Key Michigan Politico Says Medical Marijuana Top Priority in December. House Judiciary Committee Chair Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant) said Monday his top priority next month is to take up three medical marijuana-related bills. The first,House Bill 4271, would revive medical marijuana dispensaries in Michigan after recent court rulings effectively stopped the facilities from operating in the state. Cotter also plans to take up two other medical marijuana-related bills. House Bill 5104 would allow patients to use edible forms of marijuana. And Senate Bill 660 would clear the way for pharmacies to sell medical marijuana in Michigan, but only if the federal government decides to regulate cannabis as a prescription drug.

New Jersey Lawmaker Files Bill Allowing Patients to Buy Out of State. Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Union) Monday introduced a bill that would allow Garden State medical marijuana patients to buy their medicine in other states where it is legal and consume it in New Jersey. The bill attempts to address restrictions in the state's medical marijuana law that prevent easy access to some medical marijuana formulations, especially strains with high levels of CBD.

Alabama Lawmaker Ready to Try Again on Medical Marijuana. State Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham) will reintroduce medical marijuana legislation again next year, she said Monday. The bill would allow for the use of CBD. Todd's previous medical marijuana bills have gotten nowhere in Montgomery.

Hemp

New Jersey Hemp Bill Wins Committee Vote. A bill that would create an industrial hemp license to regulate the "planting, growing, harvesting, possessing, processing, selling, and buying" of the crop passed the Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Monday. The bill, Assembly Bill 2415, sponsored by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), would require the end of federal hemp prohibition before licenses could be issued.

Law Enforcement

New Mexico Woman Sues over Vaginal Macing During Drug Arrest. What on earth is going on in New Mexico? Just weeks ago, it was forced enemas and colonoscopies for drug suspects; now, another New Mexican, Marlene Tapia, is suing Bernalillo County after she says jail guards strip searched her and sprayed mace in her vagina, where she was hiding drugs. The ACLU of New Mexico is taking the case.

New Jersey Bill Would Increase Drug Penalties. A bill that would reduce the amount of heroin necessary to be charged with a first-degree crime and allow prosecutors to charge drug offenses by the number of units of the drug involved instead of their weight passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee Monday. The bill, Assembly Bill 4151, is sponsored by Assemblyman Scott Rumana (R-Passaic).

International

Greece Sets Up First Supervised Injection Site. Greece has opened its first "drug consumption" room in a bid to slow the spread of blood-borne diseases among injection drug users there. The site has been open since last month and has been used by more than 200 people so far.

European Drug Experts Urge Austerity-Battered Governments Not to Cut Drug Treatment. Drug experts and policy makers from around Europe gathered in Athens Monday to urge governments to exclude drug-abuse treatment from austerity budget cuts, citing an alarming rise in HIV infections among drug users in Greece. Included in the call are harm reduction programs like the Greek supervised injection site, which is funded with Council of Europe funds.

Colombia's FARC Wants to Lead Alternative Crop Pilot Project. The leftist guerrillas of the FARC, now in peace negotiations with the Colombian government, want an active role in a pilot project to get coca farmers to grow alternative crops. The group is proposing that one of its local military units team with the government in a village in southern Colombia in a five-year project intended to get farmers to quit growing coca.

Malaysia Court Gives Thai Woman Death Sentence for Weed. A judge in Malaysia Monday sentenced a 36-year-old Thai woman to death after she was caught with about 30 pounds of marijuana at a bus depot. Barring a successful appeal, Thitapah Charenchuea will be hanged. DPP Nor Shuhada Mohd Yatim prosecuted the case.

Dubai Prosecutors Seeks Death Penalty for Less Than One Gram of Opium. Prosecutors in Dubai are seeking the death penalty for an Iranian worker accused of possessing 0.8 grams of opium. They charged he possessed it for "promotional purposes," the equivalent of "with the intent to distribute."

Chronicle AM -- November 21, 2013

Movement toward legal marijuana commerce continues in Washington, movement toward dispensaries continues in Massachusetts, medical marijuana polls very well in Florida, and more. Let's get to it:

Coming soon to a Washington state retail store near you.
Marijuana Policy

Washington State Marijuana Business License Applications Pile Up. As of Wednesday morning, the state Department of Revenue had received 585 completed applications for marijuana business licenses in the two days since the process opened up Monday. They include 27 applications for processors, 134 for growers, 144 for retailers, and 280 for operations doing both growing and processing. The state foresees 334 marijuana retail outlets. The number of growers and processors remains to be seen, but regulators want to limit legal production to two million square feet statewide.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Poll: Crist 47%, Scott 40%, Medical Marijuana 82%. A new Quinnipiac poll has support for medical marijuana in Florida at 82%, the greatest support for medical marijuana ever polled there, and nearly as much as the support for the leading gubernatorial contenders combined. The poll comes as People United for Medical Marijuana is in the midst of a signature-gathering campaign to put an initiative on the 2014 ballot. The poll strongly suggests that if the initiative can make the ballot, it will win.

Last Day for Dispensary Proposals in Massachusetts. Today is the deadline for the 158 qualified applicants seeking to open medical marijuana dispensaries in the Bay State. They are vying to be one of the 35 dispensaries envisioned by state law. In the second phase of the selection process, applicants will now go before a committee that will score their applications on a number of factors, including ability to meet the health needs of patients, appropriateness of the location, geographic distribution, local support, and plans to ensure public safety.

New Mexico's Bernalillo County Bans County Employees from Using Medical Marijuana. Bernalillo County (Albuquerque), the state's most populous county, has banned the use of medical marijuana by county workers under a new policy issued November 12 by County Manager Tom Zdunek. Zdunek cited federal prohibition and county policy as reasons for the ban. "This is a backwards policy that will prevent people who are suffering from accessing the medicine that works for them," said Jessica Gelay, policy coordinator for Drug Policy Alliance in New Mexico. "It is unconscionable that the County Manager would unilaterally attempt to deny Bernalillo County employees the right to use a medicine recommended by their physician. Patients deserve above all else, the freedom to choose the safest and most effective treatment for their disabling conditions -- whatever that treatment might be. It is time to stop demonizing marijuana and creating a double standard for prescription medications."

Cannabis Oil for Kids Greeted Warmly at Utah Capitol. Parents seeking access to cannabis oils for their epileptic children got a warm reception at a pair of committee hearings at the statehouse Wednesday. This is only a first step; there is no bill pending, but the response from lawmakers was largely positive, especially if such "hemp supplements" contained only small amounts of THC. There are about 10,000 Utah kids suffering from "refractory seizures" from epilepsy, and 35 of them are on a Colorado waiting list for a cannabis extract called Alepsia.

Drug Testing

Minnesota Now Drug Testing Public Benefits Recipients with Drug Felonies. People with a previous drug felony who are receiving or seeking public benefits are now subject to random drug testing under a law passed by the legislature in 2012. Those programs are the Minnesota Family Investment Program, General Assistance Program, Minnesota Supplemental Aid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. About 1% of state public benefits have felony drug records, similar to the proportion in the general population.

International

Myanmar Opium Eradication Campaign Falls Short. Opium eradicators in Myanmar's southern Shan State have fallen well short of wiping out the poppy crop. Police had planned to eradicate 30,000 acres of poppy in the past 30 days, but only actually destroyed about 4,600 acres, or 13% of the target. They blamed manpower shortages, poor road links, and a flawed crop substitution program for their failure to meet their targets. Myanmar is the world's second largest opium producer, but lags far behind Afghanistan, which produces about 90% of the illicit global supply.

Tanzania Scolded on Need for Drug Reform, Harm Reduction. The Tanzanian government needs to come up with a harm reduction strategy for drug users and reform its drug laws, Doctors of the World harm reduction specialist Damali Lucas told a Dar es Salaam press conference Monday. The country's 1995 drug law does not differentiate between someone holding a small amount of drugs and someone holding large amounts, she noted. She also called for a harm reduction policy to be implemented to address the spread of HIV and related illnesses.

With Legalization Looming, Lessons from the Netherlands [FEATURE]

The US states of Colorado and Washington voted last year to legalize marijuana and are moving forward toward implementing legalization. Activists in several states are lining up to try to do the same next year, and an even bigger push will happen in 2016. With public opinion polls now consistently showing support for pot legalization at or above 50%, it appears that nearly a century of marijuana prohibition in the US is coming to an end.

A coffee shop in Amsterdam, where clients can sit and smoke. Why no on-premises consumption here? (wikimedia.org)
Exactly how it comes to an end and what will replace it are increasingly important questions as we move from dreaming of legalization to actually making it happen. The Netherlands, which for decades now has allowed open marijuana consumption and sales at its famous coffee shops, provides some salutary lessons -- if reformers, state officials, and politicians are willing to heed them.

To be clear, the Dutch have not legalized marijuana. The marijuana laws remain on the books, but are essentially overridden by the Dutch policy of "pragmatic tolerance," at least as far as possession and regulated sales are concerned. Cultivation is a different matter, and that has proven the Achilles Heel of Dutch pot policy. Holland's failure to allow for a system of legal supply for the coffee shops leaves shop owners to deal with illegal marijuana suppliers -- the "backdoor problem" -- and leaves the system open to charges it is facilitating criminality by buying product from criminal syndicates.

Still, even though the Dutch system is not legalization de jure and does not create a complete legal system of marijuana commerce, reformers and policymakers here can build on the lessons of the Dutch experience as we move toward making legal marijuana work in the US.

"Governments are looking to reform their drug policies in order to maximize resources, promote health and security while protecting people from damaging and unwarranted arrests," said Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, Director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program. "The Netherlands has been a leader in this respect. As other countries and local jurisdictions consider reforming their laws, it's possible that the Netherlands' past offers a guide for the future."

A new report from the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program lays out what Dutch policymakers have done and how they have fared. Authored by social scientists Jean-Paul Grund and Joost Breeksema of the Addiction Research Center in Utrecht, the report, Coffee Shops and Compromise: Separated Illicit Drug Markets in the Netherlands tells the history of the Dutch approach and describes the ongoing success of the country's drug policy.

This includes the separation of the more prevalent marijuana market from hard drug dealers. In the Netherlands, only 14% of cannabis users say they can get other drugs from their sources for cannabis. By contrast in Sweden, for example, 52% of cannabis users report that other drugs are available from cannabis dealers. That separation of hard and soft drug markets has limited Dutch exposure to drugs like heroin and crack cocaine and led to Holland having the lowest number of problem drug users in the European Union, the report found.

Pragmatic Dutch drug policies have not been limited to marijuana. The Netherlands has been a pioneer in harm reduction measures, such as needle exchanges and safe consumption sites, has made drug treatment easy to access, and has decriminalized the possession of small quantities of all drugs. As a result, in addition to having the lowest number of problem drug users, Holland has virtually wiped out new HIV infections among injection drug users. And, because of decriminalization, Dutch citizens have been spared the burden of criminal records for low-level, nonviolent offenses.

The Dutch have, for example, virtually eliminated marijuana possession arrests. According to figures cited in the report, in a typical recent year, Dutch police arrested people for pot at a rate of 19 per 100,0000, while rates in the US and other European countries were 10 times that or more.

For veteran drug reform activist Joep Oomen of the European NGO Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), the report is welcome but not exactly "stop the presses" news.

"The conclusions of this report have been known for a long time," he told the Chronicle. "Already by the end of the 1990s, when European governments had to acknowledge that Dutch drug policies had proven more effective in reducing risks and harms than many other countries, the criticism that had been expressed earlier by mainly German and French heads of state was silenced. For instance, in the Netherlands the age of first heroin use is the highest of Europe, which is explained by the relative tolerance concerning cannabis use." [Ed: A high age of first use is considered good, because it means that fewer people are experimenting with a drug when they are young -- which in turn means fewer people ever trying it, and those who do being more likely to be capable of avoiding problematic use.]

While the Dutch can point to solid indications of success with their pragmatic drug policies, it is not all rosy skies. The "back door problem" alluded to above continues unresolved, and the relative laxness of Dutch marijuana policy has led to an influx of "drug tourists," especially from neighboring countries, such as France and Germany. Both of those irritants have provided fodder for conservative parties and administrations that have sought to roll back the reforms.

"There seems to be more admiration for Dutch drug policy outside the Netherlands than inside," Oomen observed. "Right-wing governments that have dominated the Dutch political climate since 2002 have slowly dismantled acceptance-oriented drug policy. Lately the establishment of the Weedpass in the southern part of the country [which excludes non-Dutch from access to the coffee shops] and new measures against grow shops and coffee shops are definitely threatening to undermine the coffee shop model," he said.

"Instead of completing the regulation of this model by solving the coffee shops' back door problem, the government seems to apply a policy of slow elimination by making the conditions worse in which the shops have to operate," Oomen continued. "And the Dutch press follows blindly, often referring to coffee shops as a link in a criminal chain, which is unavoidable since the ban on cultivation forces shop owners to deal with criminals, but without questioning the measures that reinforce the criminal aspect."

While the national government may now be hostile to pragmatic marijuana policies, it is facing considerable resistance from elected officials. The Weedpass program now appears to be largely a dead letter, thanks to opposition from the likes of Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan, and other local elected officials are moving to address the back door problem.

"Several Dutch mayors have plans for municipal cannabis farms to supply the coffee shops and take crime out of the industry," said Grund, research director at the Addiction Research Center. "But if Dutch drug policy offers one lesson to foreign policymakers, it is that change should be comprehensive, regulating sale to consumers, wholesale supply and cultivation."

Grund is watching the American experience with legalization in Colorado and Washington and had some observations he shared with the Chronicle.

"As far as I can judge," he said, "these are both pretty solid proposals, although quite different in detail and approach -- e.g., a vertically integrated chain of supply in Colorado and separate licensing for producers, processors, and retailer in Washington. Clearly in both states legislators have done their best. Interesting then, that they end up with rather different plans, which is actually fine, as it provides us with the opportunity to evaluate different models. For more than 25 years, there was just about only the Dutch experience with cannabis decriminalization and coffee shops; now we see different models of cannabis reform and distribution being implemented across continents. Comparing these experiences as they evolve should allow us to develop more effective drug policies."

Policymakers and regulators should try to avoid rigidity and be ready to deal with unintended responses and consequences, the Dutch social scientist said.

"The point is to approach these flexibly and pragmatically; adjust when necessary, while keeping your eyes on the ball: cutting the link between cannabis on the one hand, and criminal records, mafia and more, on the other," Grund advised, noting that the 1976 Dutch law separating hard and soft drugs did not anticipate the arrival of the coffee shop phenomenon. "As Dr. Eddy Engelsman, former chief drug policy maker at the ministry of health -- and known as the architect of Dutch drug policy -- said when we interviewed him, 'coffee shops just emerged.' The policymakers deemed that these fit their overall policy objectives and allowed for them to ply their trade openly," he recalled.

Grund also weighed in on personal cultivation -- Colorado allows it; Washington does not -- and public use, which it appears will remain forbidden in both states.

"I think Washington presents more of a business and revenue raising strategy, while Colorado feels more like grassroots meets civil libertarian meets amenable regulator," he opined. "The more social, homegrown orientation of the Colorado proposal – allowing for home growing, bartering between friends -- could perhaps engender a less market driven distribution structure, where friends compete in growing the most pleasant marijuana, not the most profitable. Something like the Spanish cannabis clubs," he suggested.

Public, convivial pot smoking in designated areas should be allowed, Grund said, because it has benefits.

"Dedicated places of consumption -- such as the coffee shops in the Netherlands or shisha parlors -- offer an opportunity to promote responsible behavior around cannabis consumption," he argued. "Smoking cannabis in a safe, hospitable and stress free environment engenders different use patterns from quickly getting high in a service ally behind a bar or in a car parked in a quiet place. Coffee shops offer a moderating environment where self regulation is supported by social learning and control."

While Grund was looking forward to the future in the US, Oomen was thinking of the unfinished business in the Netherlands, but his musing also provide food for thought for American reformers, especially those contemplating decriminalization measures.

"The lesson here is that decriminalization or depenalization are useful concepts for a transition period, but real progress can only be obtained and assured with legal regulation of the entire chain from producer to consumer," the ENCOD leader noted. "The Dutch case shows that politicians will always use the smallest margin they have to maintain to a repressive model, provoking criminal activities which they can use to justify their policies publically. This is the drug policy perpetual motion machine."

Colorado and Washington are already well down their particular paths to marijuana legalization. But there is still time for the next wave of legalization states to learn and apply those lessons, not just from Denver and Olympia, but from the Dutch pioneers as well.

Netherlands

Malaysia Minister Talks Drug Decriminalization

A Malaysian government minister said Sunday the Southeast Asian nation is moving toward decriminalizing drug possession, but her remarks also suggested that drug users would be exchanging jail cells for treatment beds. Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Nancy Shukri said the government's policy was moving from prosecuting drug users to treating them.

Nancy Shukri (frim.gov.my)
Her remarks came at the end of a High Level Meeting on Drug Policy and Public Health sponsored by the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The meeting was held in conjunction with the 2013 International Aids Conference held over the weekend in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital.

Shukri also said that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) goal of a drug-free region by 2015 was not realistic, but that smarter approaches by authorities could reduce drug dependence.

"There is no such thing as drug-free but we can control it by changing or shifting our policy," Shukri said. "Instead of looking at drug dependents as criminals, we should actually look at them as patients. Instead of bringing them to jail, we bring them to the clinic," she told a press gaggle after the AIDS conference ended.

Shukri said that Malaysia had been taking steps toward a more effective and humane drug policy, but that those initiatives were not widely known. She cited ongoing needle exchange programs for injection drug users. The sharing of needles is a known vector for the transmission of the AIDS virus, and the program had resulted in a reduction in new HIV/AIDS infections, she said.

"Others include the harm reduction program and upgrading of the rehabilitation centers into Cure & Care Clinics," Shukri said. "We are already there (decriminalizing drugs) but we are not making it loud enough for the people to understand that we have this policy. Our policy has not been established in a formal way."

That could be coming, though. Shukri said the government is currently reviewing the country's drug laws, including the Drug Dependents (Treatment and Rehabilitation) Act of 1983.

"The Law Reform Committee is now in the process of discussing to amend that particular provision [Section 4(1)(b) of the Act which allows the detention of a suspected drug dependent for up to 14 days for a test to be conducted]," she said.

Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia

GAO Says ONCDP Not Achieving Drug Goals So Far

Just a day after the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) released its latest annual national drug control strategy, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report finding that ONDCP has fallen well short of goals enunciated in its 2010 national drug strategy.

In the report, Office of National Drug Control Policy: Office Could Better Identify Opportunities to Increase Program Coordination, GAO noted that ONDCP and the federal government "have not made progress toward achieving most of the goals articulated in the 2010 National Drug Control Strategy." In some areas, including reducing teen drug use, reducing drug overdose deaths, and reducing HIV infections from injection drug use, GAO found, ONDCP was not only not making progress, but sometimes the numbers were moving in the opposite direction.

For instance, under the broader goal of "curtailing illicit drug consumption in America," ONDCP had set use reduction goals to be achieved by 2015. It sought to reduce last month drug use by teens by 15%, but has achieved no movement. Similarly, it sought a 15% reduction in past month use by young adults, but has achieved no movement. It also sought to reduce lifetime use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco by 8th graders by 15%, and was making progress toward its goal with alcohol and tobacco, but not with illegal drugs.

Likewise, under ONDCP's broad goal of "improving the public health and public safety of the American people by reducing the consequences of drug use," ONDCP identified goals of reducing overdose deaths, drug-related hospital emergency room visits, and drug-related HIV infections by 15% by 2015, but showed "movement away from goal" between 2010 and 2012.

Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske is talking up a "21st Century Approach" to drug use with a heavy emphasis on treatment and prevention, but the latest national drug budget still allocates 58% of funding to law enforcement and interdiction. And those remaining funds for treatment and prevention are "fragmented" across 15 federal agencies, with much overlapping. GAO reviewed 76 federal drug treatment and prevention programs and found 59 of them overlapped.

GAO did note that while ONDCP was not showing progress in most of its goals, it had implemented 107 of the 112 "action items" contemplated to meet those goals. The auditors noted that "ONDCP officials stated that implementing these action items is necessary, but may not be sufficient to achieve Strategy goals."

Washington, DC
United States

UN Report Slams Cruel Drug Treatment as "Torture"

Compulsory "treatment" for drug addiction in some parts of the world is "tantamount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment," according to report last month from the UN's special rapporteur on torture and other degrading treatments and punishments. The report was delivered to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Vienna.

drug "rehabilitation center," Vietnam (ohchr.org)
Authored by Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez, the report takes special aim at forced "rehabilitation centers" for drug users. Such centers are typically found in Southeast Asian states, such as Vietnam and Thailand, as well as in some countries in the former Soviet Union. But the report also decries the lack of opiate substitution therapies in confinement setting and bemoans the lack of access to effective opioid pain treatment in large swathes of the world.

"Compulsory detention for drug users is common in so-called rehabilitation centers," Mendez wrote. "Sometimes referred to as drug treatment centers or 'reeducation through labor' centers or camps, these are institutions commonly run by military or paramilitary, police or security forces, or private companies. Persons who use, or are suspected of using, drugs and who do not voluntarily opt for drug treatment and rehabilitation are confined in such centers and compelled to undergo diverse interventions."

The victims of such interventions face not only drug withdrawal without medical assistance, but also "state-sanctioned beatings, caning or whipping, forced labor, sexual abuse, and intentional humiliation," as well as "flogging therapy," "bread and water therapy," and forced electroshock treatments, all in the name of rehabilitation.

As Mendez notes, both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Office on Drug Control (UNODC) have determined that "neither detention nor forced labor have been recognized by science as treatment for drug use disorders." Such forced detentions, often with no legal or medical evaluation or recourse, thus "violate international human rights law and are illegitimate substitutes for evidence-based measures, such as substitution therapy, psychological interventions and other forms of treatment given with full, informed consent."

Such centers continue to operate despite calls to close them from organizations including the WHO, the UNODC, and the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. And they are often operating with "direct or indirect support and assistance from international donors without adequate human rights oversight."

Drug users are "a highly stigmatized and criminalized population" who suffer numerous abuses, including denial of treatment for HIV, deprivation of child custody, and inclusion in drug registries where their civil rights are curtailed. One form of ill-treatment and "possibly torture of drug users" is the denial of opiate substitute therapy, "including as a way of eliciting criminal confessions through inducing painful withdrawal symptoms."

The denial of such treatments in jails and prisons is "a violation of the right to be free from torture and ill-treatment," Mendez noted, and should be considered a violation in non-custodial settings as well. "By denying effective drug treatment, state drug policies intentionally subject a large group of people to severe physical pain, suffering and humiliation, effectively punishing them for using drugs and trying to coerce them into abstinence, in complete disregard of the chronic nature of dependency and of the scientific evidence pointing to the ineffectiveness of punitive measures."

The rapporteur also noted with chagrin that 5.5 billion people, or 83% of the planet's population, live in areas "with low or no access to controlled medicines and have no access to treatment for moderate to severe pain." While most of Mendez' concern is directed at the developing world, he also notes that "in the United States, over a third of patients are not adequately treated for pain."

Mendez identified obstacles to the availability of opioid pain medications as "overly restrictive drug control regulations," as well as misinterpretation of those regulations, deficiencies in supply management, lack of concern about palliative care, and "ingrained prejudices" about using such medications.

New York City, NY
United States

"You Can't Stop AIDS Without Ending the Drug War" [FEATURE]

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.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/aids2012-protest-1.jpg
activists interrupt the conference opening session to protest the exclusion of drug users and sex workers (video at droginreporter.hu/en)
But other critical groups remained excluded -- drug users and sex workers. Although they make up a majority of people living with HIV in many countries, people who admit to ever using drugs or engaging in prostitution within the past 10 years are inadmissible under US immigration laws. The State Department could have issued a blanker waiver of inadmissibility for people attending the conference, but declined to do so.

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.

Washington, DC
United States

Making Sure Drugs Kill: Commission Blames Drug War for Spreading AIDS [FEATURE]

On Tuesday, as the UN's global drug prohibition bureaucracy marked its annual International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking and UN Office on Drugs and Crime head Yuri Fedotov blamed hard drug use for "bringing misery to thousands of people, insecurity, and the spread of HIV," a group of leading international voices offered a starkly contrasting perspective, arguing instead that is the failures and consequences of global drug prohibition that are driving the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases among drug users.

Commission members Michel Kazatchkine, Ruth Dreifuss, and Ilana Szabo at London press conference
Those voices, gathered together as the Global Commission on Drug Policy, include six former presidents from around the world, public health experts, and socially conscious entrepreneurs such as Sir Richard Branson. They took the opportunity of global anti-drug day to issue a report, The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS: How the Criminalization of Drug Use Fuels the Global Pandemic that directly condemns the drug war as a failure and calls for immediate, fundamental reforms of the global drug prohibition regime to slow the spread of HIV and reduce other drug war harms.

There are an estimated 33 million people worldwide infected with HIV, and outside sub-Saharan Africa, injection drug use accounts for one-third of new infections. The situation is particularly bad in Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Union and East Bloc that continue to take harsh drug war approaches to drug use despite the evidence before their own eyes. In Russia, nearly one in a hundred adults is now infected with HIV.

But it's not just the Russian sphere where policymakers ignore the evidence. The report also cites China, Thailand, and the US, where Congress recently reinstated a longstanding ban on the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs. In countries that have adopted evidence-based HIV prevention programs, such as Switzerland and Portugal, injection drug use-related HIV infections have nearly been eliminated.

According to the report, drug prohibition and the criminalization of drug users spurs the spread of HIV through the following means:

  • Fear of arrest drives persons who use drugs underground, away from HIV testing and HIV prevention services and into high-risk environments.
  • Restrictions on provision of sterile syringes to drug users result in increased syringe sharing.
  • Prohibitions or restrictions on opioid substitution therapy and other evidence-based treatment result in untreated addiction and avoidable HIV risk behavior.
  • Deficient conditions and lack of HIV prevention measures in prison lead to HIV outbreaks among incarcerated drug users.
  • Disruptions of HIV antiretroviral therapy result in elevated HIV viral load and subsequent HIV transmission and increased antiretroviral resistance.
  • Limited public funds are wasted on harmful and ineffective drug law enforcement efforts instead of being invested in proven HIV prevention strategies.

"The Global Commission is calling on all entities to acknowledge and address the causal links between the war on drugs' criminalization of drug use and drug users and the spread of HIV/AIDS," commission member Michel Kazatchkine, the former executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria told a London press conference. "For people who inject drugs and their sex partners, the AIDS epidemic continues to be a public health emergency."

"It is so clear now that there is a relation between repressive drug policies and the spread of HIV/AIDS," said former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria. "If we don't get people into the health system without fear, it will be very difficult to do treatment and prevention."

Commission member Sir Richard Branson at "Atlantic Exchange" drug policy discussion, Washington, DC, March 2012
"I have long thought the war on drugs did more harm than good, and the commission's report put the data behind those beliefs," said Branson. "The war on drugs is not stopping drug use, and it also contributes significantly to the AIDS epidemic by driving users into the shadows. As an entrepreneur, if my business was failing for 40 years, I would close it down. Refusing to implement public health measures to reduce HIV and protect people with a drug problem is nothing short of criminal."

Branson and the other commissioners made some concrete recommendations for action in the report. Those include:

  • Push national governments to halt the practice of arresting and imprisoning people who use drugs but do no harm to others.
  • Measure drug policy success by indicators that have real meaning in communities, such as reduced rates of transmission of HIV and other infectious diseases, fewer overdose deaths, reduced drug market violence, fewer individuals incarcerated and lowered rates of problematic substance use.
  • 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.
  • Act urgently: The war on drugs has failed, and millions of new HIV infections and AIDS deaths can be averted if action is taken now.

"The AIDS epidemic is a harsh and brutal teacher that obliges us to take a scientific approach to deal with sex workers and drug addicts," said former Swiss President and commission member Ruth Dreifuss. "Politicians have to inform citizens of the benefits, risks, and failures of drug policy, and politics has to take responsibility for policy change. Public health has to be at least as important as criminalizing the drug traffic," she told the press conference.

"Addicted injecting drug users is one of the main sources of the spread, and not all of them will achieve abstinence," said Dreifuss. "Substitution therapies can take people away from street drug dealers and violence. For some, the provision of medical heroin is necessary to allow them to abandon criminal activities and overcome marginalization. It's possible to implement these large scale programs at low costs with high benefits," she argued.

"For others, harm reduction measures are necessary in order to avoid the spread of HIV/AIDS and other bloodborne disease. Needle exchange programs, free condoms, safe consumption rooms all not only save the lives of drug users but protect the whole population," Dreifuss explained. "We need the full spectrum of these measures for those in prison, too, who are at more risk for HIV infections."

Dreifuss touted her own country's experience as a model. Faced with mounting injection drug use, Switzerland eventually went the route of supervised injection sites and opioid maintenance, including heroin maintenance.

"Our experience is that it works," she said. "The police protect the injection rooms from dealers. The four pillar policy [prevention, treatment, harm reduction, enforcement] has been broadly accepted by our citizens and the spread of HIV/AIDS is under control."

Even within the constraints imposed by the global drug prohibition regime, countries can still take action to mitigate the drug war's role in the spread of infectious disease, she said.

"It is possible for countries to adopt effective harm reduction measures within existing drug laws," Dreifuss argued. "The decriminalization of drug use is the first step, and the second step is to determine what type of market can drive out dealers. The war on drugs has failed to reduce supply or demand; let us replace prohibition with regulation and avoid jeopardizing public health and harm reduction policies with inefficient measures."

"Our message is that prohibitionist law enforcement has failed in its goals of eradicating drugs and protecting people's health," said Kazatchkine. "Illegal drugs have become cheaper and more available and HIV and other health risks have increased. Prohibitionist policies have been shifting the market to stronger drugs and led to a war on users with numerous human rights abuses, police harassment, violence, extortion. The fear of police and stigma is driving users underground and away from access to information, care, and medical services," he warned.

"One cannot improve health through war," he concluded. "This is an epidemic among people who inject that we can actually control. If we are to have a chance at reducing the transmission of AIDS, we need to open up and change our ways."

The Global Commission on Drugs has laid out the problem and showed us the path to fix it. Now, it is up to our political leadership to act accordingly, and it is up to us to ensure that it does.

London
United Kingdom

Needle Exchange Funding Returns in Senate Appropriations Bill

The Harm Reduction Coalition has reported that language authorizing the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs has been included in the Senate's Fiscal Year 2013 Labor, Health & Human Services appropriations bill. Funding had been approved for FY 2010 and 2011, but the formerly longstanding ban on federal funding was reinstated in December for FY 2012.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is expected to once again vote for the ban on needle exchange funding in its version of the appropriations bill. Having funding language in the Senate version will give Senate negotiators something to negotiate on needle exchange when the bills are reconciled, which probably won't happen until after the November elections.

The language approved by the Senate is compromise language that only bans federal funding "in any location that has been determined by the local public health or local law enforcement authorities to be inappropriate for such distribution." The Harm Reduction Coalition calls that language "consistent with what we advocated for" and notes that the same language allowed needle exchanges in 10 jurisdictions and multiple SAMSHA-funded programs to use federal funds.

The Senate appropriations bill also includes some other good harm reduction news. In its non-binding report, it calls for an overdose prevention public awareness campaign. That report does not specifically mention the anti-overdose drug naloxone, which the Coalition had sought, and the Coalition said it would continue to lobby on that issue.

And, like last year, the bill includes $10 million for viral hepatitis screening. The funding announcement for those dollars from last year's bill has now been released and includes $1.6 million for hepatitis C testing and referrals to programs reaching out to injection drug users, including needle exchanges.

The report accompanying the FY 2013 bill also "notes the high incidence of hepatitis among injection drug users and urges SAMHSA to implement viral hepatitis testing as a standard of care in drug-treatment programs, consistent with the HHS Action Plan for the Prevention, Care and Treatment of Viral Hepatitis."

Washington, DC
United States

Kenya to Distribute Needles to Injection Drug Users

The Kenyan government will begin distributing needles to the country's estimated 50,000 injection drug users next month in a bid to slow the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases. The plan was announced last week in Mombasa, where the first pilot program will begin.

Mombasa, a port city, is reportedly a transit route for international drug trafficking. It also has the country's highest number of injecting heroin users.

"We are trying our best to address the entire problem of drug abuse amongst the youths. We had to identify an alternative of stopping the youths from sharing needles, our attention having been drawn by the rate at which these young people were contracting HIV and other diseases, such as hepatitis," said Dr. Anisa Omar, the Coast Provincial Director of Public Health and Sanitation. "In Mombasa alone, we have over 26,000 youths who use injection drugs, with at least one out of every four being found to be HIV-positive. In Nairobi, we have 20,000 youths who are IDUs."

The Kenyan government estimates that injection drug use accounts for 4% of HIV infections and 17% of new HIV infections in Coast Province, where Mombasa is located. The government moved in 2010 to shift from addressing drug use as a criminal issue to addressing it as a public health issue.

The government plans to distribute some eight million needles to injection drug users as the plan is rolled out. It will also encourage people to be tested for HIV and will provide antiretroviral drugs, condoms, and medicines for tuberculosis, which commonly co-infects with HIV.

While the government has shifted to a public health and harm reduction approach, not everybody is on board. Anti-drug activists and some religious leaders have criticized the move.

"We will file a petition in court… these children of ours don't even have any veins remaining in their bodies," said Amina Abdalla, secretary of the Coast Community Anti-Drugs Coalition. "Where do they expect them to inject themselves? Their bodies are ruptured and rotten as a result of constant use of the needles. Besides, drug peddlers and barons will have a field day, for they'll know their products will be on demand, and that's not acceptable."

Coast religious leaders also objected, saying the government should instead spend its resources on drug treatment.

But Dr. Omar said that needle sharing significantly reduced the risk of coming down with HIV and hepatitis, and that justified the program.

"The program, which will see every addict given three needles and syringes per day, will be supplied to specified private rehabilitation centers and hospitals by NGOs and qualified medical practitioners, in collaboration with anti-drug campaigners, whom we soon plan to train on how they'll best handle the addicts."

Mombasa
Kenya

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