It’s hard to paint former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz of San Francisco as a drug-loving, latter-day hippie with no regard for the law.
Shultz and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, along with 18 other international luminaries, are part of a commission that’s calling for radical changes to the war on drugs in order to stem the tide of new HIV infections.
The report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy comes in advance of the International AIDS Conference, the world’s largest gathering of HIV/AIDS experts, which is being held next month in the U.S. for the first time in 22 years.
The global drug war drives the HIV pandemic among people who use drugs and their sexual partners, the report notes: An estimated 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV, and injection drug use accounts for one-third of new HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa.
The report describes the failure of drug law enforcement policies in reducing global drug supply; for example, the worldwide supply of illicit opiates such as heroin has increased by more than 380 percent in recent decades.
Instead, the commission concludes, nations should be scaling up proven ways of reducing HIV infection such as sterile syringe distribution, safer injecting facilities, and prescription heroin programs. “Failure to take these steps is criminal,” the report states.
Nations that treat addiction as a health issue are winning the fight against HIV, the report notes: In Australia and European countries such as Portugal and Switzerland, newly diagnosed HIV infections have been nearly eliminated among people who use drugs, just as vertical transmission of HIV has been eliminated in countries where broad access to prevention of mother-to-child transmission of the virus is available.
But nations including the U.S., China, Russia and Thailand have ignored scientific evidence and resisted the implementation of evidence-based HIV prevention programs, with devastating consequences, the report says. For example, about one in 100 Russian adults is now infected with HIV; here in the United States, Congress recently reinstated a longstanding ban on the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs, meaning more users are likely to share needles and spread disease.
The report says the costly and wasteful drug war as it’s being fought today drives drug users underground, away from HIV testing and HIV prevention services and into high-risk environments.
The commission is urging national governments to halt the practice of arresting and imprisoning people who use drugs but do no harm to others, and to measure their drug policy success by indicators such as reduced transmission rates for HIV and other infectious diseases, fewer overdose deaths, reduced drug market violence, fewer individuals incarcerated and lowered rates of problematic substance use.
In addition to Shultz and Volcker, the commission also includes the former presidents of Mexico, Poland, Colombia, Brazil, Chile and Switzerland; the former prime minister of Greece; Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson; various former United Nations officials; and others.