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Global panel touts drug reforms to stem HIV/AIDS

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.

George Shultz (AP photo)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.

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Lee urges commitment on AIDS funding

The Obama Administration should pledge $6 billion over three years to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Rep. Barbara Lee said today.

Lee, D-Oakland, held a teleconference with reporters this morning after having returned to Washington, D.C., last night from the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria. She’s the only member of Congress to visit the biennial conference, and said she regretted being able to stay only two days.

Lee is circulating a letter urging President Barack Obama to commit to funding both the Global Fund and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), both of which were created under legislation she co-authored in 2000 and 2003, respectively.

”So far we have probably about 65 members of Congress on board and I’m working to get at least 100 if not more,” she said. “If we don’t provide additional funding for both of these programs, then we could face some potentially dangerous problems in the field.”

Progress has been made under these programs in controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS and other deadly diseases, she said, but failing to fund them now could mean losing that control. Things are potentially dire on the domestic front, too, she said: She praised President Obama’s rollout last week of the nation’s first-ever National AIDS Strategy, but said more funding is needed to eliminate waiting lists for life-saving drugs right here in the United States.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle but we have to do it,” she said. “This really is about quality of life and saving lives.”

Lee said the 2012 AIDS Conference is scheduled to be held in Washington, D.C., the first conference in the U.S. since 1990’s meeting in San Francisco; the 2008 PEPFAR reauthorization included language by Lee to remove an HIV travel and immigration ban and led to Obama’s elimination of that ban last year, clearing the way for the conference’s return. Lee said she’s hoping to host a pre-conference planning session in Oakland.

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Barbara Lee: We need a domestic war on AIDS

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, is the only member of Congress attending the 17th Annual International AIDS Conference, now in progress in Mexico City.

Lee coauthored the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) back in 2003, as well as the recent reauthorization which puts $48 billion toward helping millions of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS around the world. She told me this afternoon she wishes progress in fighting the disease here in the United States would be so successful.

New figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the number of cases reported annually in the U.S. is as high as 56,300, far exceeding old estimate of 40,000. And according to a new report from the Black Aids Institute, if Black America were its own country it would rank 16th worldwide in the number of people infected, more than in Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, Lesotho or Swaziland.

“It’s time for a domestic PEPFAR,” she told me today, the conference’s hustle and bustle audible behind her voice on her cell phone. “We’re talking about minimally $1.3 billion, and I’m saying we need billions more.”

See more of what Lee said about what we’ve done so far, and what we need to do, after the jump… Continue Reading