Drug War tactics driving up HIV/AIDS

The Global Commission on Drug Policy recently released yet another report condemning illicit drug prohibition and the War on Drugs.

Entitled The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS – how the criminalisation of drug use fuels the global pandemic the report lists 6 key dynamics behind the trend.

1.) Fear of arrest drives persons who use drugs underground, away from HIV testing and HIV prevention services and into high risk environments. 2.) Restrictions on provision of sterile syringes to drug users result in increased syringe sharing. 3.) Prohibitions or restrictions on opioid substitution therapy or other evidence based treatment result in untreated addiction and avoidable HIV risk behaviour. 4.) Conditions and lack of HIV prevention measures in prison lead to HIV outbreaks in incarcerated drug users. 5.) Disruptions of HIV antiretroviral therapy result in elevated HIV viral load and subsequent HIV transmission and increased antiretroviral resistance. 6.) Limited public funds are wasted on harmful and ineffective drug law enforcement efforts instead of being invested in proven HIV prevention strategies.

Let’s forget “drug war” and call this problem what it is. Treating drug use as a criminal offence. Now, just by raising that image we’re into different waters entirely. Pointing to problems with the criminal model immediately evokes suspicion of compulsory promotion of illicit drug use. We’re conditioned to assume if we don’t punish drug use, it will be everywhere and bring about a host of nasty outcomes.

Mostly, we’re well conditioned to associate drug use with crime and to see it as criminal. Stitched on to this is the pop culture image from which we draw stereotypes. My favourite is one I often refer to as Quinn Martin. Quinn Martin Productions brought us Streets Of San Francisco and a host of other unrealistic 1970′s TV Cop shows. If you wanted a crime – it was drug related. A bad guy or a weak willed loser? Toss in a druggie.

Of course, I’m not suggesting we imagine this. The reality is criminals are made from associating in criminal circles and from being incarcerated, regardless of the reason. How this fits in with the drug-crime punishment model was addressed recently by eminent Australians who authored the Australia 21 Report. They state:

The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children, and we are all letting it happen

Rather than legalisation alone, that report discussed regulation, decriminalisation and de-penalisation. Far from being an open slather free ride these measures involve control, certain losses of freedom, the need to demonstrate responsibility and a major focus on rehabilitation back to a productive and useful lifestyle. What they don’t involve is the destruction of lives and sustaining criminal enterprise at huge cost to the community.

Yet in Australia we do very well managing HIV/AIDS in injection drug users [IDU]. 16 million use IV drugs globally. Almost 20% live with HIV. Fortunately, Australia managed to keep that level at 3%, and a significant number of that sample were at higher risk statistically from acquiring HIV from another high risk behaviour. This level remained stable for decades.

So the question does arise. Apart from acknowledging shocking human rights abuses, tragedy in many nations and an ongoing source of disease and corruption, what policy aspects need we mull over?

Since the Howard years Tough On Drugs initiative and emergence of groups like Drug Free Australia lobbying against expanded protective measures, the level of HIV in IDU jumped to 4%. It remains an exquisite example of how just a few years of delayed and abandoned Harm Reduction responses, increased punishment and disinformation about Harm Reduction efficacy has an immediately devastating impact on HIV control in Aussie IDU.

The fact that this collective undermining of Harm Minimisation occurred during a period when Harm Reduction services, research and supporting evidence expanded rapidly in Australia is testimony to how effective disinformation and intuitively themed attacks on evidence can actually be.

Still, as of April this year we remain extremely fortunate thanks to Harm Reduction:

HIV in IV Drug Users matched to Harm Reduction

The single greatest sabotage of Harm Reduction initiatives under the auspices of John Howard, was the suppression of a heroin on prescription trial in 1997. This had strong bipartisan support and the Federal Health Minister, four States and the ACT were excited about the decision to go ahead. Under instructions from then ANCD head Major Brian Watters – later to become a Board member of Drug Free Australia – Howard immediately vetoed the decision.

Exactly how many HIV cases, ruined lives and deaths this led to is impossible to estimate, and I would err toward a minimal estimate. Still, 15 years later we can assume the body pile is now somewhat impressive. In what is unique insight into how Howard in turn manipulated the zealots who tried to manipulate him, he never flinched on needle exchange.

To his credit he continued to fund over a thousand outlets across Australia, with some specialising in bulk dispensing, others in hard core risk management. Abandoning these programmes was insanity, despite conservative lobbyists being convinced he might do so. Yet to Howard, being seen to usher in heroin prescription – “free heroin” – as shock jocks called it was political suicide.

Despite strong support for our official policy of Harm Minimisation, which accommodated extreme spending against smuggling (Supply Reduction), this is how he presented his thoughts in 1998:

The policy of zero tolerance of drug taking in this country is a wholly credible policy and policy that ought to be pursued more vigorously by government and by people who are concerned about the problem.

Of all the lies he told, this remains one of my favourites. There was no such policy beyond words. He seemed to despise everyone equally. Which was essential for the politician he became. All that mattered to Howard was Howard, and securing votes. Manipulating drug workers, users, science advisers, policy experts and voters over what was a social crisis at the time was pure business.

British Columbia did introduce heroin on prescription in 2005. 5 years later the effects of the combined measures on HIV were compelling:

British Columbia: HIV infection matched to Harm Reduction initiatives

Similar success from heroin on prescription is found in every nation to usher in trials and programmes. Sadly, Australia was ready before the Howard years. We were in fact, world leaders. Now it’s a different story. We have one Medically Supervised Injecting Facility that ran as a successful trial for 11 years.

Seven of those 11 years were due to disinformation and sabotage from conservatives. In October 2010 the Kenaelly NSW State government passed a Drug Misuse and Trafficking Amendment bill to ensure the Centre became permanent. 11 years of moral panic was, at least legislatively, silenced.

Whilst actually attacking Harm Reduction initiatives, confusing methadone and buprenorphine with illicit drugs and muddling the lot in with AFL drug policy, Alan Jones delighted us with his wisdom on “Harm Minimisation”, in mid 2007 [MP3 here]. Obnoxious, offensive and completely ignorant of facts it is also somewhat representative of Aussie views today:

So today Australia has a long, long way to go before we do, if ever, fully recover from the rise of anti-drug conservatives under John Howard. They did far more damage than just raise HIV infection by 1% in injection drug users. Our fluency with progressive policy and public maturity has been undermined. Australia waits, on pause.

33 million people live with HIV today. Outside sub-Sahran Africa IV drug use accounts for 1/3 of new infections. For almost 15 years annual HIV infections have been falling on a global scale. Except for seven countries wherein HIV infections increased by about 25% primarily due to IV drug use.

The “drug war” is full on in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and unsurprisingly 5 of these 7 countries are in these boundaries. In the last decade people living with HIV in these areas has close to tripled. Russia has resisted Harm Reduction measures keeping methadone illegal and charging users for needle possession. As this demographic is actively abused by law enforcers the motivation to use needles based on access convenience and minimal time is heightened. The results are clear:

HIV infections – Russian Federation

Thailand has impressively cut HIV infection in workers in the famous tourist attracting sex industry from 40% in the mid 1990′s to around 5% today. This pulled male clientele infection rates down in parallel. At the same time fierce drug war tactics led to 2,500 “death squad” murders in 2003 and HIV is up to 1 in 2 IDU in some regions. A comparison of different demographics for HIV infection is compelling:

THAILAND: HIV infections per demographic

In a splendid example of stupidity the USA reinstated it’s 21 year ban on federal funding for needle exchange programmes only 2 years after ending it. A stark lesson for Australia, constantly under the assault of disinformation from anti-drug group Drug Free Australia, can be found on page 9 of the GCDP Report.

Recently in reviewing the history of Harm Reduction and HIV, I noted the stark difference between not just nations, but regions within nations favouring HR as a powerful controller of HIV spread. Similarly today it can be seen that in nations with extreme law enforcement, and regions within the USA with the most intense law enforcement that HIV levels are higher than those with low law enforcement.

For instance, a study of the 96 largest US metropolitan areas found that measures of anti-drug “legal repressiveness” were associated with higher HIV prevalence among injectors and concluded: “This may be because fear of arrest and/or punishment leads drug injectors to avoid using syringe exchanges, or to inject hurriedly or to inject in shooting galleries or other multiperson injection settings to escape detection.”

DFA fallaciously – and skillfully – report the exact opposite. Similarly DFA urge for dedicated Harm Prevention measures, described already on this blog as crude behaviour modification. Whether through blind or biblical force the aim is to do just that: force drug users to stop by changing behaviour. Forget the addiction and crush the symptom.

The easiest way to do this is control the environment. Enter compulsory detention. What DFA have called “compassionate detention”. The models they are considering are terrifying. Not only is HIV infection spread through these centres, they fail to offer any addiction treatment. Forced abstinence is associated with high fatality relapse.

Once infected with HIV criminal and punitive approaches act as a disincentive to testing and treatment. Requirements to be drug-free in order to receive treatment (as in Sweden) and denial of certain rights like child custody and employment correlate directly to higher HIV/AIDS fatalities. Confidentiality breaches and stigma impact frequently due to law enforcement regardless of country.

This leads to higher circulation of HIV in the community as treatment has been shown to reduce HIV transmitted via blood and body fluids. As such it is vital all demographics in all communities can be reached through treatment which ultimately leads to prevention.

Incarceration also increases HIV infection and Australia is heading toward a USA type model which has 25% of prisoners listed as HIV positive. Fortunately our initial lower levels in the IDU population will protect us significantly from such a nightmare. Unusually, prison needle exchange is resisted strongly. DFA play the key lobby role nationally and prison guard unions seem intent to deny evidence in favour of their health.

Australian prison guards profit enormously from selling syringes to prisoners. Secondary to money is the control of prison dynamics, control of prisoner behaviour and the essential control of these transactions in corruption entire. A syringe is power in the prison setting. The sooner we remove this tool from guards and protect prisoner health with clean exchanges, the better.

Resources spent on law enforcement are resources not spent on health initiatives generally, on a global scale. With drug crime and infection encouraged by the former and lessened by the latter, it is clear we face a major global challenge. Public health is the first principle of drug control.

Settings where HIV prevention measures have been curtailed as a result of economic concerns have been particularly vulnerable to increases in HIV risk among injection drug users. For instance, a greater than 10-fold increase in newly diagnosed HIV infections among injecting drug users has recently been reported from Greece during the first seven months of 2011.

Australia remains incredibly lucky and indeed most fortunate in this global picture. What cannot be ignored and what must be cautioned against is our slow morphing into a landing pad for USA styled conservative disasters. DFA is an arm of Drug Free America Foundation and act at their bidding. DFAF have their “division”, the Institute on Global Drug Policy who fund the Journal of Global Drug Policy and Practice.

This is no journal but a vehicle for lobbying against progressive drug policy primarily that which targets HIV control. All get together and play at the Swedish based World Federation Against Drugs which similarly is nothing like a “world federation”. What they strive for is patently out of this world.

As today’s most brilliant minds accept the evidence condemning prohibition, the global Drug Free Whomever groups seek to defend the UN Drug Conventions that originated in 1961.

Fortunate we may be, but complacent we cannot afford to become.

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About @advodiaboli
I'm not really a cast iron flying pig.

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