Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Experts Urge Drug Policy Reform - Is Julia Gillard Ready?

With Julia Gillard publicly declaring she is an atheist, there is some speculation that she may drop the old moral arguments driving our drug policy and instead implement an evidence based strategy. The timing for JG is perfect as the call for drug law reform has been growing exponentially over the last few years. And to top it off, a group of world renown experts have just gone public by announcing their support for “evidence-based approaches to illicit drug policy that start by recognizing that addiction is a medical condition, not a crime”. The announcement came prior to next month’s 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna titled, The Vienna Declaration.

The Vienna Declaration calls for a scientific approach to illicit drug use and questions the effectiveness of the criminalisation of injection drug users.  The document, written by medical and academic professionals, does not criticise law enforcement personnel, but rather the policies they carry out.  It says those policies are helping to spread HIV/AIDS.

The Vienna Declaration is basically a scientific statement from the scientific community about the harms of illegal drugs in our society, and drawing important attention to the fact that many of the policies, which are in place around the world – this notion of sort of a war on drugs and this over emphasis on law enforcement does more harm than good.
-- Dr. Evan Wood: Chair of the Vienna Declaration Writing Committee

Julia Gillard has a unique opportunity to shake off the tired old "Tough on Drugs" mantra that has kept Australia from progressing as one of the early leaders in harm minimisation. Without the ACL and other religious groups being able to push their nasty, dangerous anti-drug ideology on a susceptible PM, JG might finally be someone who is able to see past their agenda and opt for evidence, science and compassion. All of which has been sadly lacking for over a decade.

The criminalisation of illicit drug users is fuelling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences. A full policy reorientation is needed…Reorienting drug policies towards evidence-based approaches that respect, protect and fulfill human rights has the potential to reduce harms deriving from current policies and would allow for the redirection of the vast financial resources towards where they are needed most: implementing and evaluating evidence-based prevention, regulatory, treatment and harm reduction interventions.

Unfortunately, much of the world is probably stymied by what the US decides to do with their drug policy. Although the "War on Drugs" has officially been ended by the US government, they are yet to fully back their rhetoric with action. This may simply be a political manoeuvre until Obama is elected for a second term where he can instigate the drug law reform he once promised. Nevertheless, the changes to US drug policy are solid building blocks for the future especially removing the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs and the acknowledgment that drug policy must incorporate treatment as a priority.

I will be extremely interested to see what will happen after the upcoming federal election. Especially in regard to prescription heroin and medical marijuana. Both of these issues are supported by science and evidence and are important steps in drug policy reform. 

It’s been over 10 years since the proposed ACT heroin trial was vetoed by John Howard but other countries have now successfully proven the huge benefits of Heroin Assisted Treatment (HAT). A scientific trial is no longer necessary and hopefully we will see Australia establish it’s own HAT programs based on the existing evidence from Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Canada, The UK, Spain and Denmark. 

Hopefully, the need for new laws allowing medical marijuana will be obsolete and instead cannabis will be fully legalised by way of regulation. The cannabis debate has gone on long enough and like the fall of communism, the walls will soon come tumbling down with many countries opting out of the UN’s convention on drugs. Whether Australia follows the inevitable is up to JG.

So, is Julia Gillard sensible enough to follow world trends and base important decisions about drug policy on evidence and research? We will know soon enough.

Experts Urge Reform Of Global Drug Policy
By Veronika Oleksyn

VIENNA — Policies that criminalize drug users fuel the spread of AIDS and should be reformed, experts preparing for an international conference said Monday.

Instead, governments, international organizations and the U.N. should promote policies that include opiate substitution therapy and needle and syringe programs that have been shown to reduce HIV rates without increasing rates of drug use, said the experts from groups such as the International AIDS Society, the International Center for Science in Drug Policy and the British Columbia Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. They also want compulsory drug treatment centers to be scrapped, saying they are ineffective and violate human rights.

"The criminalization of illicit drug users is fueling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences. A full policy reorientation is needed," the experts said in a declaration issued ahead of an AIDS conference that gets under way in the Austrian capital on July 18.

Among other things, the declaration says there is no evidence that increasing the "ferocity" of law enforcement reduces the prevalence of drug use and claims that the number of countries in which people inject illegal drugs is growing.
"Many of us in AIDS research and care confront the devastating impacts of misguided drug policies every day," Julio Montaner, president of the International AIDS Society and director of the BC Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said in a statement.

"As scientists, we are committed to raising our collective voice to promote evidence-based approaches to illicit drug policy that start by recognizing that addiction is a medical condition, not a crime," added Montaner, who will serve as chairman of the Vienna conference.

The declaration urges governments, international organizations and the United Nations to carry out a transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies and to implement a science-based public health approach.
While legal barriers to needle programs and opiate substitution therapy mean hundreds of thousands of people become infected with HIV and hepatitis C every year, the criminalization of drug users has resulted in record incarceration rates, the experts said in joint statement.

They added that opiate substitution therapy, and needle and syringe programs, are cost-effective, help drug users access health care and have not been shown to have negative consequences.
"The current approach to drug policy is ineffective because it neglects proven and evidence-based interventions, while pouring a massive amount of public funds and human resources into expensive and futile enforcement measures," said Evan Wood, founder of the International Center for Science in Drug Policy.

"It's time to accept the war on drugs has failed and create drug policies that can meaningfully protect community health and safety using evidence, not ideology."

Wood appeared to be echoing a comment made by U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske last month. In an interview with The Associated Press, he said that after 40 years the United States' $1 trillion war on drugs has not been successful.

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