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The Simple Funding Fix That Could Dramatically Reduce Drug-Related Deaths

Infographic from the 10 by 20 campaign, which calls on governments to redirect 10 percent of the resources that they currently spend in the war on drugs to harm reduction. See full version of 10 by 20 booklet. © Harm Reduction International

At this year’s UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the four men and two women who were executed in Indonesia by firing squad in January were a source of much discussion.

The six victims were convicted of trafficking under Indonesia’s draconian drug laws, and the executions sparked international outcry. Yet these horrific events represent just one moment in a decades-long war on drugs that has claimed countless lives. Although there are no official statistics on how often the death penalty is carried out for drug offences, Harm Reduction International estimates that globally, at least a thousand people are executed each year in the name of drug control, while thousands more are sentenced to lengthy prison terms or forced into abusive drug treatment centers.

Drug control and enforcement strategies hit those who are already marginalized hardest, with a disproportionate impact on poor people, racial minorities, and increasingly, women. They violate many fundamental human rights, including life, liberty, and privacy, and fuel violence and militarization. They also have little impact on the drugs trade or the powerful cartels that profit from it. We have known for years that the war on drugs cannot be won, yet in 2015, governments will spend over $100 billion pursuing it.

By contrast, global funding for harm reduction services, including needle exchange and opioid substitution therapy, currently amounts to just $160 million. This is despite evidence which has shown over and over that these interventions dramatically reduce rates of HIV and hepatitis among people who use drugs, and that they save lives and money. Current funding for these harm reduction efforts amounts to a meager seven percent of what is needed.

As a result, we have missed by more than 80 percent the UN target to halve HIV infections among people who inject drugs by 2015, placing it among the worst-performing of the targets agreed upon at the 2011 High-Level Meeting on HIV and AIDS. Our latest Global State of Harm Reduction report predicts that at the current rate of progress it will be 2026 before every country that reports injecting drug use within its borders has even one harm reduction service or has endorsed the approach in national policy. 

At the opening of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Harm Reduction International launched its 10 by 20 campaign, calling on governments to take a tenth of the resources that they currently spend on drug enforcement and redirect them toward harm reduction. This 10 percent alone could twice over fill the gap in HIV and hepatitis C prevention for people who use drugs. It could strengthen organizations run by people who use drugs, enabling them to provide peer services and to campaign for their own human rights. It could fund the rollout of naloxone, an emergency treatment with the power to reverse overdoses and the potential to prevent many thousands of drug-related deaths each year. 

The year 2016 presents a number of major opportunities to advance our call for 10 percent by 2020. Ahead of the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), we are calling on governments and multilateral institutions to ensure that health and harm reduction are central pillars in the UNGASS negotiations and in any outcome document. With the next High-Level Meeting on HIV following on the heels of the UNGASS, we’re also urging countries to embrace a focus on harm reduction funding by championing a global target of 10 by 20.

Harm Reduction International is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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