NEW YORK—In advance of a United Nations meeting meant to set the direction of drug policy for the next decade, the Open Society Institute today released a new report documenting the costs to health and human rights of current, repressive approaches to drug control.
Country delegates gathering in Vienna next week are expected to issue a political declaration that could impact the lives of millions of people. The OSI publication, which includes studies and testimonies reflecting conditions in more than 30 countries, examines the ramifications of ignoring public health concerns.
“Any drug control approach that does not ensure protections for health and human rights is destined to fail,” said Daniel Wolfe, director of OSI’s International Harm Reduction Development Program. “The global war on drugs has devolved into a war on individual drug users and their communities. While the drug trade continues to thrive, families across the globe are being torn apart by HIV, draconian prison sentences, and wholesale police abuses.”
Through firsthand interviews, policy analyses, and case studies, At What Cost?: HIV and Human Rights Consequences of the Global War on Drugs highlights the ineffectiveness of drug control to achieve its goals, and its far-reaching, unintended consequences. In the report, women from Cambodia recount being rounded up by police and locked without charges in a military-run “rehabilitation” center where they were subjected to regular and severe beatings by guards. Medications for HIV, tuberculosis, or to treat painful withdrawal symptoms were unavailable to the women. In another chapter, a 41-year-old man in Karachi, Pakistan, reports that suspected drug users “have now become a very easy source of income for the police. If we do not have money, then they will arrest us and beat us without any reason.”
Their stories are among many accounts in the OSI report that vividly document the ways in which drug control practices violate human rights and undermine HIV prevention efforts. In Mexico and India, evidence shows that fear of police abuse or incarceration discourages drug users from carrying sterile injection equipment, and leads to unsafe injection practices. In Indonesia, where 42.5 percent of injection drug users are reported to be HIV-positive, it is illegal to carry syringes without a prescription, and drug users report both physical and psychological torture, extortion, and draconian prison terms. Incarceration can also lead to severe health consequences for people who are addicted to drugs. For example, in India, drug users report up to 30 inmates sharing one syringe in detention, where drugs are widely available but access to clean injection equipment is not.
Without health programs, even successful efforts to reduce cultivation of opium poppy can accelerate HIV infection. In Burma and Pakistan, for example, scarcity of opium and heroin have led to price increases, and caused drug users to switch from inhalation to injection as a more efficient (and more dangerous) mode of administration. Rates of HIV among drug users in these regions are on the rise.
Many countries worldwide require people who access drug treatment centers or who are arrested for drug use to be registered in government databases. This deters people from seeking addiction treatment, and results in routine breaches of confidentiality and further police abuse. In China, people who receive prescription medication for addiction treatment are registered as drug users—even if they have not used illegal drugs in years—and face arrest and compulsory urine testing any time they have to show their identification card, such as when registering a child for school or checking into a hotel.
The UN meeting, coordinated by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, will be held in Vienna from March 11 to 15. The last high level meeting on drug control was convened in 1998 under the motto “A Drug-Free World—We Can Do It!” The political declaration from that meeting failed to highlight the critical role that efforts such as needle exchange programs and alternatives to incarceration play in stemming the HIV epidemic and reducing human rights abuses.
“It is well past time for nations to recognize that any effort that treats drug users as something to be controlled and contained rather than as human beings worthy of protection is dangerous for global health and global morality,” said Wolfe.