The use of illicit drugs must be decriminalized if efforts to halt the spread of AIDS are to succeed, one of the world’s leading independent authorities on the disease has warned.
In an unprecedented attack on global drugs policy, Michele Kazatchkine, head of the influential Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, has said in an interview that, without a radical overhaul of laws that lead to hundreds of thousands of drug users being imprisoned or denied access to safe treatment, the millions of dollars spent on fighting HIV and AIDS will be wasted.
Kazatchkine will use his keynote speech at the 20th International Harm Reduction Association conference today in Bangkok to expose the failures of policies that treat addiction as a crime. He will accuse governments of using what he calls “repressive” measures that deny addicts human rights rather than putting public health needs first.
He will argue that governments should fully commit to the widespread provision of harm reduction strategies aimed at intravenous drug users, such as free needle exchanges and providing substitutes to illicit drugs, such as methadone.
“A repressive way of dealing with drug users is a way of facilitating the spread of the [HIV/AIDS] epidemic,” Kazatchkine said. “If you know you will be arrested, you will not go for treatment. I say drug use cannot be criminalized. I’m talking about criminalizing trafficking, but not users.”
He condemns policymakers who argue that, because drug users frequently turn to crime to fund their habit, it justifies making it a criminal justice issue. Harm reduction both helps the addict and wider society and reduces the need to commit crime, he said.
“The one population where [AIDS] mortality has been untouched — and in fact has worsened — has been IV [intravenous] drug users. It’s amazing, because what we call harm reduction, such as exchanging needles, has been scientifically proven as the most effective,” he said. “This is why I will most probably start my speech in Bangkok by mentioning the contrast between major progress achieved in decreasing mortality from AIDS in the poorest countries of the world versus the total lack of progress for what is the main route of transmission in most parts of the world outside Africa.”
Kazatchkine suggested that politicians feared that the public would label them soft on drugs. A doctor and respected AIDS expert, he has overseen some of the most dramatic improvements in treatment and prevention of HIV globally.