A century of misguided international drug policy has done immeasurable harm. The “war on drugs” has frequently devolved into a war on drug users, resulting in increased incarceration, human rights violations and diseases like HIV. Thousands of drug users across the world are behind bars without access to proper care.
When the international community gathered in Vienna in March to set international drug policy they failed to respond to the public health challenges that drug use presents. This failure will have a negative impact on civil society organisations working with injecting drug users. It is an injustice to millions of drug users across the globe.
UNAIDS advocates harm reduction strategies such as needle exchange schemes to prevent the spread of HIV. But at the 52nd session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, all references to harm reduction approaches were removed from documents that will shape the future of drug control.
During the ministerial level meeting most delegates focused on corruption, human trafficking, money laundering, organised crime and the prevention of terrorism. They acknowledged that drug use costs lives and harms health, societies and economies. Yet while listing their countries’ achievements in drug control over the past decade, none mentioned the need for harm reduction.
Nor did they mention how the war on drugs seriously harms the general population. In many countries, manual eradication of drug crops or aerial fumigation is implemented by military or police forces, local militia, foreign governments and companies. This often results in the militarization of producer regions, involving them in anti-insurgent policies and producing severe human rights violations of civilians. Innocent people suffer health problems from pesticides used to destroy coca or poppy plants.
During a satellite session, I saw a young representative of Youth RISE give a speech on how young people have been affected by international drug policy. He said that while failing to achieve a “drug free world”, the war on drugs has had devastating consequences for young people who all too often become the casualties of misguided policies. He appealed to the international community to involve young people in policy and programme development at all levels.
Youth RISE is a leading international youth harm reduction network advocating young people’s right to active participation in any decision making process. Their presence in Vienna was a good sign – we should encourage more youth involvement in such events. By giving a voice to those most affected by the dual epidemics of drug use and HIV/AIDS, we may yet achieve a policy that helps them.
Ishwarchandra Haobam is from SASO, an Alliance implementing partner in Manipur, India. SASO is made up of drug users and ex-drug users who are providing HIV prevention services, home detox services and support for women and young people vulnerable to HIV. Ishwarchandra Haobam is also a member of Youth RISE.