Pubdate: Wed, 20 Apr 2016
Source: Pretoria News, The (South Africa)
Copyright: 2016 The Pretoria News
Author: Kerry Cullinan


FOR THE first time in 20 years, the UN has convened a special session 
on "the world drug problem" amid fierce international debate about 
whether drug users should primarily be punished or rehabilitated.

The UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs, which started 
yesterday and is scheduled to run until tomorrow, was called after 
Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala appealed to the body to revise the 
global approach to illegal drugs.

After two decades - and a trillion or so dollars later - the 
"war-on-drugs" approach of criminalising drug users has dismally 
failed to prevent the distribution and use of illegal drugs.

Many countries and organisations are calling for the global approach 
to be tilted in favour of "harm reduction" strategies that help drug 
users to deal with their addiction rather than imprisoning them.

Harm reduction strategies include opioid substitution programmes, 
where injecting heroin users are offered oral methadone instead to 
help them reduce their drug dependency.

They are also offered clean needles to reduce their chances of 
getting HIV and Hepatitis C through their habit of sharing infected needles.

But there is an almighty war about future policy in a world where a 
person can be executed in Indonesia for drug possession, but use the 
same drugs without imprisonment in Portugal and the Czech Republic.

South Africa has been pulled in different directions by the fierce lobbying.

Russia, a key advocate of the punitive approach, met African 
countries in Durban recently in an attempt to sway this continent to 
support the punitive status quo.

But it appears that the "harm reduction" approach adopted last year 
by the AU is gaining traction.

Deputy Social Development Minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu has 
played an important role in promoting harm reduction as chairwoman of 
the AU's Technical Committee on Health, Control.

The AU Common Position emanating from this technical committee 
stresses a harm-reduction approach that is "evidence-informed, 
ethical and human rights-based" and offers "dependence treatment and 
after care services".

At a meeting in Vienna last month, Bogopane-Zulu said: "I would 
Population and Drug strongly support an approach where drug users 
form their own network to discuss their problems, that they have 
focal points in police stations and at hospitals with which they can 
interact on their concerns and very importantly, that religious and 
traditional leaders be trained alongside criminal justice system 
professionals on among others, harm reduction approaches".

But South African policy on the ground at the moment is quite different.

The TB/HIV Care Association (THCA) offers clean needles to drug 
users, but reported almost 250 cases of police harassment in just 
three months last year.

Meanwhile, there is only one site in the entire country that offers 
opioid substitution for heroin addicts.

Unfortunately, the "outcome document" negotiated before the UN 
session makes no mention of harm reduction, and has been condemned by 
almost 200 civil society organisations headed by the International 
Drug Policy Consortium.

The Vienna meeting that prepared the outcome document was dominated 
by Russia, which takes a heavy-handed approach to drugs. Drug 
addiction is a huge and growing problem in Russia, which has an 
estimated 8 million heroin users - approximately 6% of its total population.

According to the civil society organisations, the draft outcome 
document's goal of "a society free of drug abuse" by 2019 "is 
delusional and dangerous, framing and distorting the entire policy 
response, prioritising the elimination of drugs above health, 
well-being, human rights and the reduction of drug-related harm".

They say that if the UN agency endorses the current approach to 
drugs, it will be a huge waste of money as the current approach has 
caused a litany of problems including:

Human rights abuses, including the death penalty for drug offences.

Exacerbated HIV and hepatitis C transmission.

Inadequate access to controlled drugs for medical purposes.

187 000 avoidable drug-related deaths each year.

Violence, corruption and killings perpetuated by criminal drug markets.

Stigmatisation of use drugs.

Destruction of subsistence farmers' livelihoods by forced crop eradication.

Last month, a 22-person commission of experts convened by Johns 
Hopkins University and the medical journal, The Lancet, called for 
the decriminalisation of all non-violent drug use and possession.

The Hopkins-Lancet commission said drug prohibition was not 
evidence-based and was causing harm, namely:

Exacerbating violence between criminal networks and authorities: "In 
Mexico, the striking increase in homicides since the government 
decided to use military forces against drug traffickers in 2006 has 
been so great that it reduced life expectancy in the country."

Driving infectious diseases, particularly in prisons: the "excessive 
use of incarceration as a drug control measure" brought drug users 
together in prisons where people who "HIV and hepatitis C virus 
transmission occurs among prisoners and detainees, and is often 
complicated by co-infection with tuberculosis".

Displacing rural communities who produce crops of coca leaf, opium 
poppy and cannabis, while the spraying of their crops with poisons 
had caused "respiratory and dermatological disorders and miscarriages".

"Policies meant to prohibit or greatly suppress drugs... have 
contributed directly and indirectly to lethal violence, 
communicable-disease transmission, discrimination, forced 
displacement, unnecessary physical pain and the undermining of 
people's right to health," concluded the commission.

The UN session's negotiations are likely to be complicated and technical.

But the insertion of two words  "harm reduction"  will make a huge 
difference to people struggling with drug dependence as it will 
compel the relevant authorities to see them as people with a serious 
health problem rather than just common criminals.  Health-e News
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom