#36 XVIII. International AIDS Conference 2010

Breaking the myths

Years ago, world leaders proclaimed a war on drugs. Billions were spent, but drugs still continue to circulate around the globe. According to HIV experts and drug policy advocates gathered in Vienna, repressive drug regimes fuel the epidemic and increase stigma and discrimination.

Drugs as we know them were not always the prohibited narcotics they are today. Back in 1870, in the United States, liquid opium was taken as medicine just as much as Aspirin is used today. However, when Chinese sailed to America and smoked opium in dens, the act was seen as defiant and shocking.

The fear of the unknown provoked the first law against drugs in USA in Nevada, which prohibited smoking of opium. In Europe, heroin was initially sold as medicine against morphine addiction from the German pharmaceutical company Bayer. Nowadays, it is an illicit drug. However, it may be used in some countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Denmark as long as it is controlled by medical supervision.

Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance from New York, is full of examples. A long-time advocate of human rights-based drug policies in the US and around the world, the last he would do is to promote drug use. However, he has clear evidence that criminalisation of possession presents drug users with even higher risks: a person who fears a harsh justice system and faces incarceration for years does not use harm reduction services.

To illustrate this, he discussed an experiment in Canada, where a group of people addicted to heroin were part of a test group. Half of them were given heroin, while the other half was provided with Dilaudid, a legal medicine with similar effects. The result? Not even the long-term heroin users could tell the difference. “Heroin is like a demon,” Ethan Nadelmann says. “But clean, pharmaceutical heroin does not differ from other pain medication.”

Drugs won’t disappear from the world’s surface

People have always found a way to drug themselves for various reasons, whether for recreational purposes or as medication. The criminalisation and penalisation has never (and will not) lead to less drug use, experts like Nadelmann say.

“If the drug business is controlled by the mafia and black market it will be always out of control,” Nadelmann explains. He cites the Prohibition in the United States as an example to support the idea of legal drug control. Back in the 1920s, alcohol was banned in the U.S. to curb the effects of abusive drinking. However, the law backfired: people resorted to bootlegged liquor or made their own. Instead of drinking beer, hard liquor such as whiskey became the drink of choice, because it was easier to make a profit out of drinks with higher alcohol content. Crime and corruption increased as the mafia (led by Al Capone and other figures) took over the country

“The analogy is very much the same today,” says Ethan Nadelmann. Surveys among school pupils in the U.S. state that they find it easier to buy marijuana than alcohol. Legalising marijuana appears to have broad support, with some 56 percent of Californians in favour of the motion (as surveyed in an April 2009 Field Poll). A California voter initiative that would legalise possession and sale of marijuana has qualified for a November 2010 ballot.

Some countries like Switzerland, Portugal and the Netherlands have relatively tolerant drug policies, while many Asian countries are extremely repressive. Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, the Open Society Institute’s Director of the Global Drug Policy Programme, shared her sentiments about a visit to China:

“I visited the Uyghur community in a village in Xinjiang. The place was covered with needles. It was dangerous to walk on it,” she says. “I met there a worker who was limping. He hurt his leg when he jumped of the second floor of a building running away from the police. He was not afraid to be arrested. He was afraid of being sent to a rehabilitation centre. In China, you are sent to it without a trial. However, there is very little treatment there. You don’t know your release date. Every day you spend there, your family pays for you. If they don’t, you stay hungry. He was afraid that if he is caught, his daughter wouldn’t be able to afford to go to college.”

Harm reduction

The International AIDS conference in Vienna 2010 is unified around the idea that everyone deserves HIV treatment because everyone’s life is worth the same. Not so long ago, a common perception of HIV/AIDS was that if you got infected, you basically did it to yourself and deserved it. Nowadays, the general perception is that it is the person plus the environment that come together to create the HIV risk.

According to Sempruch, the AIDS community agrees that harm reduction services should be offered to people who are in prisons. “Everybody will agree that anti-retroviral treatment should be offered to people who are in prison. Here, I think the AIDS conference’s position is clear. I think where we are less clear is saying why people dependent on drugs are in prison in the first place,” she says.

By: Dobriyana Tropankeva, Bulgaria


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