Prevent war on drugs becoming war on drug users, says Red Cross Red Crescent

Published: 10 April 2003

It is becoming more urgent every day for governments to provide efficient and practical measures to help injecting drug users lead healthy lives, such as increased access to treatment and programmes that lessen the harm they are exposed to, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said today. Harsh and even violent policies to force individuals to change, only shift the war on drugs to a war on drug users, it added at the closing of the 14th International Conference on the reduction of drug-related harm in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

HIV-rates among injecting drug users who share needles and syringes are rapidly increasing – in many countries the infection rates have exploded to epidemic levels in less than one year. Most injecting drug users are already a disenfranchised population at high risk to HIV infection, and face high levels of stigmatization, discrimination and even incarceration.

Support to these groups is imperative, said Dr. Massimo Barra, who founded an Italian Red Cross foundation that assists injecting drug users, and board member of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

“If we do not recognize, respect and appropriately provide available and proven treatment strategies to drug users, if we react in ways that aggravate the suffering, then we are perpetuating an attitude that goes against the concept of humanity and human rights – as well as against the interests of each nation. Easier access to clean needles and syringes, drug substitution and treatment programmes is a humanitarian gesture, not an act of complicity,” said Dr. Barra.

Hundreds of scientific studies around the world have demonstrated the effectiveness and cost benefit brought about by harm reduction strategies, which often include needle and syringe exchange programmes and drug substitution treatment.

“The scientific evidence is clear: harm reduction works. ‘Social evil’ policies, condemnation, harrassment and even incarceration of drug users do not,” said Bernard Gardiner, manager of the International Federation’s HIV Unit. “What is urgently needed are treatment programmes for those who can and want to stop using drugs and effective harm reduction programmes to stop people from dying. The stigmatization and discrimination of injecting drug users, particularly those who are HIV-infected, continues to spread the virus around the world, also among the groups who consider themselves at low-risk.”

Although many countries are already providing quality services to address problem drug use, other governments have instituted policies that hinder practical harm reduction work. A number of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas are already running harm reduction programmes in line with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement’s humanitarian mandate. Most of these programmes build on the experiences and views of current and former drug users and HIV positive people, who through these programmes are involved in the betterment of their communities and their own personal growth and human dignity.
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In Chiang Mai,
Omar Valdimarsson, Regional Information Delegate Tel: + 66 1 823 9218

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