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57th UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs commences in Vienna

Friday, 14 March, 2014

The 57th UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) commenced yesterday in Vienna, an annual meeting convened to discuss international drug policy and attended by UN member states, civil society, policy makers and other key stakeholders. This year’s CND includes a high-level segment to discuss progress made, and review the 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action on the world drug problem. Reform-orientated countries and civil society organisations are calling for an alternative approach to drug laws – one that is public-health focused, with harm reduction and decriminalisation of minor drug possession at it’s core.

The Political Declaration and Plan of Action International Cooperation Towards an Integrated and Balanced Strategy to Counter the World Drug Problem of 2009 is the guiding drug policy document of the UN. The CND’s principal mandate is to feed into this document by developing and recommending strategies to combat the world’s drug problem. The outputs of the CND high-level review will be submitted to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs, which will take place in 2016, and form the main drug policy document of the UN going forward.

The drug debate is particularly relevant for the HIV epidemic. Globally, an estimated 15.9 million people inject drugs, of which three million are living with HIV. This is because the sharing of drug taking equipment, particularly infected needles, carries a high HIV transmission risk. Just under half of all people who use drugs are concentrated among five countries – China, Malaysia, Russia, the Ukraine and Vietnam. Around one-third of global HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa are a result of injecting drug use.

Harm reduction is a proven approach to curbing HIV and Hepatitis C transmission among injecting drug users, either through the provision of needle exchanges or opiate substitution therapy, to name a few. However, the illegal nature of injecting drug use creates barriers to accessing adequate treatment and preventions services, meaning people who inject drugs are more vulnerable to HIV and its effects. Punitive laws such as prohibiting ARV treatment for drug users living with HIV, or prohibiting the provision of sterile injecting equipment, or the criminalisation of drug use in general, all prevent drug users from accessing the necessary services to protect themselves and their partners from HIV.

There is a notable divide on the debate on drug policy - those calling for more stringent laws, led by Russia who are notable for their anti-harm reduction approach, versus those who want to see a shift towards a more liberal, public health approach. In advance of the meeting, Harm Reduction International and STOP AIDS, a UK coalition of HIV organisations, of which AVERT is a member, issued a press statement calling on the UK government to reject the current draft statement from the high-level review. They state that the document “represents a capitulation by progressive governments who support human rights and health-focused approaches to drugs under pressure from hardline states seeking ever more stringent tactics.”

In the press release, they claim that the draft statement does not acknowledge harm reduction; fails to acknowledge the fact that the world is not on target to reduce HIV among people who inject drugs by 50 percent; and fails to denounce human rights abuses in relation to drug enforcement. Rick Lines, Executive Director of Harm Reduction International, remarks “there is no honest reflection of the consistent failures to prevent HIV related to unsafe injecting… Endorsing this text will take human rights and the HIV response backwards. The UK should refuse to put its name to it.”

For further information on Harm Reduction, including case studies and the UK response, see this STOP AIDS Factsheet.