A decade after governments pledged to achieve a “drug-free world,” there is little evidence that the supply or demand of illicit drugs has been reduced. Instead, aggressive drug control policies have led to increased incarceration for minor offences, human rights violations, and disease
Repressive approaches to drug control are having a devastating effect on the health and human rights of injecting drug users in India, says a new report by the Open Society Institute (OSI). The report includes studies and testimonies reflecting conditions in over 30 countries.
‘At What Cost?: HIV and Human Rights Consequences of the Global War on Drugs’ highlights the ineffectiveness of drug control and its unintended consequences. The report was released on March 5, 2009, the week before a UN meeting coordinated by the Commission on Narcotic Drugs started in Vienna.
A decade after governments worldwide pledged to achieve a “drug-free world,” there is little evidence that the supply or demand of illicit drugs has been reduced. Instead, aggressive drug control policies have led to increased incarceration for minor offences, human rights violations, and disease.
“The global war on drugs has devolved into a war on individual drug users and their communities,” says Daniel Wolfe, director of OSI’s International Harm Reduction Development Programme. “While the drug trade continues to thrive, families across the globe are being torn apart by HIV, draconian prison sentences, and wholesale police abuses.”
The Indian Network for People Living with HIV (INP+) wrote a chapter in the report on drug control policies and HIV prevention and care among injecting drug users (IDUs) in Imphal, Manipur. INP+ found overwhelming evidence of human rights violations against drug users in India including police violence and harassment. Fear of police abuse or incarceration discourages drug users from carrying sterile injection equipment. As a result, they engage in unsafe injection practices. One of the people interviewed for this report asked: “If they cannot even carry clean syringes, how can you expect them to carry used syringes for exchange?”
“HIV prevention and care among IDUs in India, like elsewhere, is complicated by the presence of criminal laws that are supposed to control illicit drug use but actually impinge on the rights of people who use drugs,” says Kh Jayanta Kumar “Bobby”, a board member of INP+. “This makes IDUs more vulnerable to HIV infection because of the barriers they face in accessing HIV prevention services. For those drug users who are HIV-infected, the laws also pose barriers -- directly or indirectly -- so they cannot even access the basic treatment services they need.”
Incarceration too has serious health consequences for people who are addicted to drugs. Drug users in India reported up to 30 inmates sharing one syringe in detention; drugs are widely available but access to clean injection equipment is not.
Numerous other stories in the OSI report highlight practices that violate human rights and go against basic public health, including HIV prevention. Women from Cambodia reported that police would round them up and subject them to regular beatings. Medication for HIV, tuberculosis, or to treat painful withdrawal symptoms, were not made available. A man in Karachi, Pakistan, reported that suspected drug users were “a very easy source of income for the police”. In Indonesia, where 42.5% of injecting 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.
Many countries require people who access drug treatment centres 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. They then 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.
Identifying the public health consequences of such human rights violations by law enforcement, the report’s authors make a series of recommendations to help align drug control efforts with health and human rights. They point out that there is a need to:
- Train and sensitise the police on harm reduction and the human rights of drug users.
- Sensitise the general public to decrease stigma and discrimination against people who use drugs.
- Create partnerships between law enforcement agencies and the public health sector.
- Ensure that the police exercise discretion in implementing drug-related laws/policies.
- Introduce harm reduction services, and ensure treatment for people living with HIV in prisons.
The report is available at: http://www.soros.org:80/initiatives/health/focus/
Source: AIDS-INDIA egroup, March 2009
Open Society Institute, March 2009