Failed tough-on-crime policies destabilize countries and economies, fuel violence and rates of HIV infection
The Vienna Declaration, the official declaration of the recently completed International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria, seeks to improve community health and safety by calling for the incorporation of scientific evidence into illicit drug policies. The controversial document asks governments around the world to reject the war on drugs, which has cost trillions of dollars, created widespread violence and ultimately killed tens of thousands of people.
The Vienna Declaration notes there is no scientific evidence that increasing the ferocity of law enforcement meaningfully reduces the supply or demand for illicit drugs. It also recognizes the devastating public health consequences that come with criminalizing drug use, as addicts are driven deeper underground and unsafe practices such as needle-sharing spread severe infections such as HIV.
Leaders in the fields of academia, medicine, politics and even law enforcement have endorsed the declaration and called for their peers to do the same. But the Vienna Declaration was recently panned by Canada's federal government. The Conservatives rejected the document, saying it doesn't fit in with this country's anti-drug policy. The federal government's head-in-the-sand, get-tough approach to illicit drug policy will continue to cost Canadians and their communities dearly, and sets an uninformed example for the rest of the world.
Nobel Laureates such as Dr. James Orbinski and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi; Dr. Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; and Stephen Lewis, a Canadian leader in the fight to defeat HIV and AIDS and former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa under UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have endorsed the Vienna Declaration and would take issue with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's misguided policies. In addition, five provincial chief medical health officers in Canada have signed the Vienna Declaration, including Dr. Perry Kendall from British Columbia.
"Addiction and HIV are medical issues that should be treated as health problems rather than simply as something for the criminal justice system. So obviously I support the Vienna Declaration...," said Dr. Kendall, who is among more than 14,700 people who have endorsed the declaration.
The declaration is also winning support from people who have witnessed first-hand the devastation of the drug war, including former Latin American presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), Ernesto Zedillo (México) and César Gaviria (Colombia). Said Cardoso: "Repressive policies are firmly rooted in prejudices, fears and ideological visions. The way forward to safeguard human rights, security and health is a strategy of peace not war."
Victoria police officer David Bratzer added the Vienna Declaration has bolstered his conviction that drug prohibition is a national policy failure: "It is one thing to read the statistics demonstrating the connection between illicit drug use and HIV; it is another matter entirely to patrol the streets, day in and day out, repeatedly arresting men and women infected with the HIV virus."
Over the course of the 40 years since US president Richard Nixon declared the formal "war on drugs", countless lives have been lost, among them drug users and members of law enforcement (judges, police, politicians, etc.), innocent by-standers and drug traffickers alike. We need look no further than Mexico and Jamaica for daily reminders of the destabilizing effect that the well-funded war on drugs has had on entire countries and their economies. Furthermore, taxpayers are on the hook for these law enforcement expenditures, with the largest share borne by long-suffering taxpayers in the US, where the war on drugs has cost an estimated $1 trillion.
Some countries have had enough. Georgia is one of several countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia where injecting drug use is the primary cause of new HIV infections. During the AIDS 2010 conference, three Georgian leaders joined the Declaration's call for evidence-based drug policy.
"Our signatures on the Vienna Declaration reinforce our recognition that harm reduction can provide numerous benefits and highlights the need to design policies that align with emerging science," Sandra Roelofs, the First Lady of Georgia, stated following her public endorsement.
Roelofs leadership offers hope that countries – including Canada – will eventually follow suit and support evidence-based drug policies. Today, one month after the Declaration was launched, 40 per cent of the 14,576 endorsements come from Canada (22 per cent) and the United States (18 per cent).
The next International AIDS Conference will be held in Washington D.C. in 2012. Before that meeting, governments around the world will be asked to state a formal position regarding the declaration. We hope they listen to people harmed by the war on drugs and to those affected, infected and at-risk from HIV and AIDS, and implement evidence-based policies that make health – rather than law enforcement and incarceration – the top priority.
Evan Wood is director of the Urban Health Research Institute at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and Chair, Writing Committee, Vienna Declaration.Michaela Montaner is communications leader at the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy.firstname.lastname@example.org
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