World Aids Day 2013: If our goal is zero, drug policy reform is crucial

Zero New HIV Infections. Zero Discrimination and Zero AIDS-related deaths. That is the goal set by UNAIDS over the next two years. But when it comes to stopping HIV transmission associated injection drug use, we have a long way to go.

“An effective AIDS response among people who inject drugs is undermined by punitive policy frameworks and law enforcement practices” (UNAIDS 2013)

The 2013 UNAIDS Global report notes that HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs ranged from 5% in Eastern Europe to 28% in Asia.  Rates of HIV among drug injectors in Canadian cities range from approximately 5% to more than 30%. According to Canada’s own Public Health Agency, more than 50% of new HIV infections among Aboriginal people in Canada were caused by intravenous drug use. Rates of HIV and hepatitis C among people incarcerated behind the walls of Canada’s prisons are 10 to 30 times outside those same walls. Although Corrections Canada claims that injection drug use is strictly prohibited within its facilities, no prison system in the world is able to keep drug use out.  But only two of 32 reporting countries surveyed by UNAIDS provided adequate access to sterile syringes for persons who injects drugs in prison.

In 2012 the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a groundbreaking report titled “The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS: How the Criminalization of Drugs Fuels THE Global Pandemic.” The report points to the inability of law enforcement to reduce global drug supply and raises the alarm about the role that repressive drug control policies play in driving the HIV epidemic in many regions of the world. The report also details how policies that prohibit needle distribution result in increased syringe sharing.  In fact the Global Commission confirms what others have been saying: the fear of arrest drives people underground and away from needed services. Together these repressive policies help to escalate HIV infections. The Commission urges countries to make available proven drug treatment and harm reduction services, to reduce HIV infection and protect community health and safety.

It’s clear that ending prohibition and scaling up harm reduction is an integral part of solving the complex global HIV problem. By drawing on the evidence of what works, British Columbia has made significant strides at reducing infection rates, but our federal government willingly refuses to acknowledge the role that harm reduction plays in protecting everyone’s health.

On September 30, 2013, the second anniversary of the Supreme Court of Canada decision that instructed the Canadian government to issue a permit for the supervised injection site, Insite in Vancouver, we worked with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and PIVOT Legal Society to register our concerns to Health Minister Ambrose about attempts by the federal government to block the implementation of life-saving health services for people with addictions, in the face of extensive scientific evidence of their benefits in protecting public health and public safety. Our letter  to Ambrose, which garnered the support of more than 50 organizations in Canada, challenged her government to get going on life-saving harm reduction services. We are still waiting for a response.

Along with our commitment to World Aids Day, we will also continue to mark September 30 (9-30), the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision supporting Insite. We invite you to join us and help ensure that supervised consumption services become a part of the continuum of care for people who use drugs in Canada. And finally, please consider contributing to help our small but mighty team continue to work for evidence based and human rights focused drug policy reform in Canada.

About CDPC

We are an independent civil society network of organizations and individuals working to improve Canada’s drug policies. Staff occasionally re-post important articles and curate this space with guest bloggers from our network.