July 29, 2010

On the street, you can see the harm caused by drug laws

By David Bratzer, Citizen Special July 29, 2010

Like many other police officers, I have witnessed the tragedy of the HIV epidemic first hand. It is one thing to read the statistics demonstrating the connection between illicit drug use and HIV; it is another matter entirely to patrol the streets, day in and day out, repeatedly arresting men and women infected with the HIV virus.

Our country has one of the finest health-care systems in the world, but our laws surrounding drug use result in unnecessary disease and death.

In this context, the recent announcement of the Vienna Declaration has bolstered my conviction that drug prohibition is a national policy failure.

The document, inspired by an international team of leading health scientists and academic physicians, is the official declaration of this month's International AIDS Conference in Vienna. It presents an important scientific fact that I see reflected in my work every day: "The criminalization of illicit drug users is fuelling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences."

The declaration calls for a "full policy reorientation." This should not be misconstrued as an endorsement of drug use. It is simply a recognition that drug law enforcement is not an effective deterrent, citing studies showing "there is no evidence that increasing the ferocity of law enforcement meaningfully reduces the prevalence of drug use."

It is also a recognition that drug law enforcement is contributing directly to the HIV epidemic. In most parts of the world, approximately one in three HIV infections can be traced back to intravenous drug use. Toronto, Ottawa, Surrey, Winnipeg and other Canadian cities are not immune.

Drug prohibition increases the rate of HIV infections. When illegal drugs are sold through the black market, the only concern is making money. There is no financial incentive for traffickers to provide drug education, counselling or harm reduction services such as sterile needles.

In addition, in parts of Canada it is common for an injection drug user to be arrested for a minor drug charge and end up with a court-imposed condition to abstain from possessing drug paraphernalia. Addicts are then forced to choose whether to carry sterile needles and risk a new criminal charge, or to share a needle with another addict who may already have a blood-borne disease.

The Vienna Declaration is particularly important within Canada. Bill S-10 is before Parliament. It is the federal government's third attempt in as many years to create mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offences.

The wording of this legislation virtually guarantees that street-level drug addicts will find themselves going to jail for lengthy prison terms. This will do nothing but channel limited tax dollars away from health and education and into costly incarceration policies which will turn petty drug users into hardened criminals.

HIV prevention efforts will be hampered if this bill passes. The HIV infection rates in federal prisons are similar to some African countries, according to the statistics provided by the Correctional Service of Canada. So, for many of these addicts, part of their sentence will include a substantial risk of contracting HIV or Hepatitis C.

Of course, the Vienna Declaration is not the first time a major initiative has been announced to coincide with the biannual International AIDS Conference. Ten years ago, the Durban Declaration stated a basic scientific truth: that HIV is the cause of AIDS. More than 5,000 scientists and medical doctors signed the document in an effort to confront AIDS denialism.

The main critic of the Durban Declaration was Thabo Mbeki, who was president of South Africa at the time. He believed, mistakenly, that there was a causal link between poverty and AIDS. In fact it is HIV that causes AIDS. His denials, rooted in ignorance and willful blindness, have cost many lives in South Africa.

Given this history, it will be interesting to see who opposes the Vienna Declaration. Police lobby groups have traditionally been the most vocal critics of drug policy reform. In this instance, however, they should choose their responses carefully. At stake is the very credibility of these organizations. They risk being remembered in the same light as President Mbeki, for it is clear that the new AIDS denialism is the failure to acknowledge the realities of HIV transmission.

The Vienna Declaration will play a significant role in HIV policy, and I am proud to have signed the document online at viennadeclaration.com.

I can only hope that my colleagues in law enforcement will be inspired to do the same.

David Bratzer is a member of the board of directors for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and a police officer in British Columbia. The opinions expressed in this column do not represent the views of his employer.

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