Politicians, activists, scientists, and at least one Rocket Man are flocking to D.C. this week for the 19th International AIDS Conference. The biannual conference, hosted in the US for the first time in 22 years, will surely bring about countless speeches, tons of scienctific reports, and one giant blanket. But if the summit is to be successful, leaders must realize that winning the battle against AIDS can't happen until we end the War on Drugs.
The World Health Organization estimates that over 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV. And according to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, while we've seen dropping numbers of fatal cases since the first case was reported over 30 years ago, several countries have seen "devastating consequences" as a result of certain draconian policies.
Outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, injection drug use is responsible for a third of all new infections. The statistics are particularly terrible in countries boasting harsh anti-drug laws. In Russia, for instance, the majority of state funding goes towards law enforcement, rather than treatment programs. As a result, we see handcuff happy cops focusing on filling up arrest quotas instead of putting injecting drug users in rehab. Fear of arrest keeps addicts away from HIV testing and prevention services, perpetuating spread of the virus. And the story isn't that much different back here in the US.
"It is so clear now that there is a relation between repressive drug policies and the spread of HIV/AIDS," said former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria. He's right. Fear of punishment steers abusers away from the help they need. Restriction on sterile syringe programs leads to increased needle sharing. Funds are thrown away on ineffective drug enforcement policies rather than treatment methods that actually work.
Forcing addicts into hiding won't stop AIDS. Neither will pushing laws that continue to view addiction as a crime. For the nineteenth time, leaders from across the globe will come together at the International AIDS Conference, hoping to find a solution that sticks. Well, here's one that just might work: Want to end AIDS? Then you better end the War on Drugs.