Does the War on Drugs Worsen the HIV/AIDS Epidemic?

By Jed Bickman 06/26/12

A new report claims that the War on Drugs has increased the spread of HIV by preventing many drug users from seeking treatment.

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Drug addicts forced to share needles
contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Photo via

The global War on Drugs is partially responsible for the HIV/AIDS pandemic, according to a new report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The report, which is signed by former presidents of Brazil, Columbia, Pakistan, Mexico, Greece, Chile, and other world leaders, including George Schultz, the former US Secretary of State, shows that the war on drugs exacerbates the spread of HIV and interferes with public health by forcing drug users into the shadows and creating barriers to healthcare and services. Countries that adopted harm reduction policies, such as needle exchanges and supervised injection facilities (like in British Columbia), drastically reduced the number of new infections. The stigma and fear of criminalization drives addicts underground: a study, published in the British medical journal The Lancet, shows 19% of new infections among drug users could have been avoided if police stopped abusing drug users (and simply enforced the laws as written). The report calls on national governments to “halt the practice of arresting and imprisoning people who use drugs but do no harm to others,” saying that mass incarceration is connected to needle sharing and unprotected sex, and creates a barrier to obtaining antiretroviral treatment. Thailand—which had success in combating the spread of HIV among sex workers through using a harm-reduction and public health policy—has maintained a tough stance on drugs, resulting in a much higher degree of vulnerability to HIV among drug users than any other segment of the population, including sex workers. In a broad survey of cities around the world, in cities without needle exchange programs, overall new HIV infections increased by 6% per year, whereas in cities with those programs, the rate decreased by the same amount. The report urges policy makers to adopt “evidence-based and rights-affirming” interventions against drug use and scaling up public health driven treatment options in countries like the US that use a policing model to combat drug use.

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Jed Bickman is a journalist and copywriter living in the greater New York City area. He is the associate editor at The New Press. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.