Negotiations at the United Nations High Level Summit on drugs in Vienna last week fell flat. Although 25 countries officially stated their support for proven methods such as needle exchange and overdose prevention, the summit’s outcome was a watered-down political declaration that fails to acknowledge crucial lessons that have been learned over the last decade.
The refusal to include the words “harm reduction” seems motivated by ideology rather than science, despite clear evidence showing that needle exchange and substitution treatment keep drug users alive and free of deadly infections.
Those advocating for harm reduction accept that drugs have always been a part of human history and aim to decrease the damage caused by their production and use. A vocal few disagree with this approach, labeling it, in the Vatican’s words, “anti-life.”
Those who strive for the futile goal of a “drug-free world” refuse to recognize the proven benefits of harm reduction. But the evidence against the “war on drugs” is overwhelming: prisons swelling with non-violent drug offenders, billions of dollars spent on military action to curb production while the availability of illicit drugs increases and prices drop, and increasing HIV rates throughout the former Soviet Union and parts of Asia.
Elsewhere, the stories of futility in the “war on drugs are more brutal: capital punishment for drug-related offenses; extra-judicial killings in the name of creating drug-free societies; drug users sent to labor camps as a form of “treatment”; and drug-using women handcuffed to beds during childbirth. The list goes on. But there is reason for hope.
Since assuming office, President Barack Obama has made clear his desire to lift the federal ban on needle exchange in the United States. Indeed, while the previous Bush administration led the global opposition to harm reduction, the US delegation struck a more conciliatory tone at the Vienna summit, indicating what some perceive as a fresh start to drug policy.
Ten years ago, when a “drug-free world” became the global drug-policy mantra, no one imagined that in 2009 two million people in the former Soviet Union, and over a million in Asia, would be infected with HIV through intravenous drug use. Also missing from Vienna was a discussion about increased numbers of destabilized countries becoming narco-states.
There is, moreover, still an important region where drug use has not contributed significantly to HIV infection rates: Africa. Sadly, when we meet again in ten years, this will no longer hold true. Even though no African countries voiced their support in Vienna for harm reduction, African leaders should take heed of those countries with pragmatic and humane drug policies.
Instead of signaling a new way forward for international drug policy, the Vienna declaration represents the same, failed politics of the past. Unless that changes quickly, the result will be continued suffering and death for millions of people around the world.
Kasia is the director of the Open Society Institute's Global Drug Policy Program. She co-authored Poland’s first National AIDS program.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.