Saturday, December 2


In Lead Up to XVIII International AIDS Conference, Scientists and Other Leaders Call for Reform of International Drug Policy and Urge Others to Sign-on

28 June 2010 [Vienna, Austria] – Three leading scientific and health policy organizations today launched a global drive for signatories to the Vienna Declaration, a statement seeking to improve community health and safety by calling for the incorporation of scientific evidence into illicit drug policies. Among those supporting the declaration and urging others to sign is 2008 Nobel Laureate and International AIDS Society (IAS)Governing Council member Prof. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, co-discoverer of HIV.

The Vienna Declaration is the official declaration of the XVIII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2010), the biennial meeting of more than 20,000 HIV professionals, taking place in Vienna, Austria from 18 to 23 July 2010.

“Many of us in AIDS research and care confront the devastating impacts of misguided drug policies every day,” said AIDS 2010 Chair Dr. Julio Montaner, President of the IAS and Director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. “These policies fuel the AIDS epidemic and result in violence, increased crime rates and destabilization of entire states – yet there is no evidence they have reduced rates of drug use or drug supply. 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.”

The Vienna Declaration describes the known harms of conventional “war on drugs” approaches and states:

“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.”

Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, injecting drug use accounts for approximately one in three new cases of HIV. In some areas of rapid HIV spread, such as Eastern Europe and Central Asia, injecting drug use is the primary cause of new HIV infections. Legal barriers to scientifically proven prevention services such as needle programmes and opioid substitution therapy (OST) mean hundreds of thousands of people become infected with HIV and Hepatitis C (HCV) every year. The criminalization of people who inject drugs has also resulted in record incarceration rates placing a massive burden on the taxpayer. HIV outbreaks have also been reported in prisons in various settings internationally. This emphasis on criminalization produces a cycle of disease transmission, along with broken homes and livelihoods destroyed. Yet these costs, along with the more direct costs of the ‘war on drugs’, produce no measurable benefits.

“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 Dr. Evan Wood, founder of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP) and Clinical Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia. “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.”

The Vienna Declaration calls on governments and international organizations, including the United Nations, to take a number of steps, including:

  • undertake a transparent review the effectiveness of current drug policies;
  • implement and evaluate a science-based public health approach to address the harms stemming from illicit drug use;
  • scale up evidence-based drug dependence treatment options;
  • abolish ineffective compulsory drug treatment centres that violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and
  • unequivocally endorse and scale up funding for the drug treatment and harm reduction measures endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations.
  • The declaration also calls for the meaningful involvement of people who use drugs in developing, monitoring and implementing services and policies that affect their lives.

“As a scientist, I strongly support drug policies that are based on evidence of what actually works,” said Prof. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Director of the Regulation of Retroviral Infections Unit at the Institute Pasteur, IAS Governing Council member and recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Medicine. “I join with my colleagues around the world today to sign the Vienna Declaration in support of science-driven policies and human rights.”

The effectiveness of opioid substitution therapy (OST) and needles and syringe programmes is well-documented, though access to such interventions is often limited where HIV is spreading most rapidly. According to various scientific reviews conducted by WHO, the US Institutes of Medicine and others, these programmes reduce HIV rates without increasing rates of drug use. These cost-effective interventions also produce significant savings in future health care costs, and help people who use drugs access health care and drug treatment. No evidence exists demonstrating negative consequences of use of these programmes.

“Reflecting the AIDS 2010 theme of Rights Here, Right Now, the Vienna Declaration is rooted in the belief that global drug policy must respect the human rights of people who use drugs if it is to be at all effective,” said AIDS 2010 Local Co-Chair Dr. Brigitte Schmied, President of the Austrian AIDS Society. “No one who is familiar with addiction would deny the negative impacts it has on individuals, families and entire communities, but those harms do not justify human rights violations. People addicted to illicit drugs have the right to evidence-based drug treatment, to interventions to prevent infection, and, if they are living with HIV, to antiretroviral treatment.”

The Vienna Declaration was drafted by an international team of scientists and other experts, many of whom will participate in AIDS 2010 next month. It was initiated by the International AIDS Society (IAS), the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy (ICSDP), and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Those wishing to sign on may visit, where the full text of the declaration, along with a list of authors, is available. The two-page declaration references 28 reports, describing the scientific evidence documenting the effectiveness of public health approaches to drug policy and the negative consequences of approaches that criminalize drug users.

The International Harm Reduction Association has endorsed the Declaration

While executions for drugs are taking place in China, the Indian Harm Reduction Network and the Lawyers’ Collective have a legal challenge against the mandatory death penalty for drugs in their country

June 23, Mumbai: The Bombay High Court admitted a petition challenging the constitutionality of Section 31 A of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 (NDPS Act) that prescribes a mandatory death sentence for certain drug offences upon subsequent conviction. One of the most stringent laws in the country, the NDPS Act incorporated a mandatory death penalty in 1989 amidst heightened paranoia around drugs. Acknowledging the constitutional import of the issue, the Court sent notices to the Union of India and the Attorney General and assigned the matter for arguments.

In 2008, two persons were sentenced to death under Section 31A NDPS Act by Courts in Mumbai and Ahmadabad, respectively. Today, the Bombay High Court stayed the confirmation and appeal of the case before it, pending adjudication of the constitutional challenge.

The Indian Harm Reduction Network (IHRN), a registered consortium of NGOs working for humane drug policies, challenged the vires of Section 31 A NDPS Act calling it – arbitrary, disproportionate and excessive, which exacerbates the stigma and prejudice surrounding drugs as well as demonizes people involved with drugs including persons who use drugs.

Appearing for the IHRN, Anand Grover, Advocate drew the Court’s attention to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Mithu v. State of Punjab, (1983) 2 SCC 277 where a mandatory death sentence imposed upon persons convicted for murder while serving life imprisonment under Section 303 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 was declared unconstitutional.

Conceived and drafted by the Lawyers Collective HIV/AIDS Unit, the petition contends that a mandatory death sentence is unlawful as it precludes judicial discretion, prevents individualized sentencing and denies the accused the opportunity to be heard on the question of sentence. These procedural requirements cannot be eliminated as they are important safeguards against arbitrariness in the criminal justice system.

Across the world, Courts have held that mandatory death sentences constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. In prescribing death for drug offences, India is joined by Brunei-Darussalam, Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Laos, Malaysia, Oman, Singapore, Sudan, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The commitment of some of these States to democratic principles and human rights standards is doubtful.

The petition also questions the appropriateness of a death sentence for drug trafficking, which does not constitute the “most serious crime” in international human rights law. In India, life imprisonment is the norm and death the exception for the offence of murder. But for drug crimes, which do not involve the taking of life, death is the norm, without any exception.

The matter is kept peremptorily for arguments on 16th September 2010. A copy of the petition and the order is available at

For a fuller discussion on death penalty for drug offences, see the International Harm Reduction Association’s reports – ‘The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: A violation of International Human Rights Law’, 2007 and ‘The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2010

CiFChina’s likely execution of drug dealers this week should inspire UN to choose a drugs tsar who will avoid complicity in abuses

This weekend China will most likely execute dozens of people, and contrary to standard practice, it will make sure everyone knows about it. Why? Because once again it is time to mark the UN’s international day against drugs – June 26th. Last year I predicted that China would carry out executions on June 26th, and sure enough, at least twenty were put to death. It was not difficult to predict. The day has served as a pretext for executions in China for many years with as many as fifty people being executed to mark the day in some years.

[UPDATE: China has already executed six people, according to State media. Total of fourteen announced]

We often hear in response to concerns about the death penalty that we must respect the laws of foreign states and that this is none of our business. On June 26th 2008, however, two Nigerians were executed by firing squad for drug offences in Indonesia. They had been held in an EU/US funded supermax prison intended for terrorists, but housing mostly drug offenders, many on death row. This raised serious concerns about where international funding is going in the so-called ‘war on drugs’.

In 2004, Tan Xiaolin (also known as Tan Minglin) was executed to mark the UN anti drug day. In 2008, Han Yongwan, another notorious trafficker, was executed to mark the same occasion. Both were Chinese nationals executed in China. What sets these cases apart is that these individuals were arrested with the assistance of the United Nations using international funds – in the latter case, the relevant UN programme received substantial funding from the United Kingdom and the European Commission, as well as Australia, Sweden and Canada.

This week, the Guardian reported on links between the death penalty for drugs and international funding and technical assistance for counter-narcotics operations through the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Such links have been documented between a range of projects and activities in countries including Iran, China and Viet Nam. A number of named individuals, such as those above, have either been sentenced to death or executed as a result of international aid and UN support.

Recently, the UNODC has begun to take notice of the impacts of its counter-narcotics work on human rights. Antonio Maria Costa, the current Executive Director, has set out a series of recommendations for internal reform intended to improve the agency’s human rights performance. This leadership on human rights is very welcome, and much needed, but it may already be under threat. Mr Costa leaves his post at the end of July. Unfortunately, the current front runner for the role of UN drug czar is the candidate being pushed by the Russian government.

The candidate is Yuri Fedotov, current Ambassador to the UK. But this is not about the individual except to the extent that he is a career diplomat of over forty years’ service. It is about Russia’s disastrous drug policies, its appalling human rights record and despite this, a government official nonetheless taking a high profile position of strategic importance to both issues.

Russia is no supporter of human rights scrutiny in drug control, and works to block any such progress in international political fora such as the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. There are nearly two million people who inject drugs in Russia, and the Government has abandoned them to HIV and abusive ‘treatments’ such as ‘flogging therapy’. Moreover, the Government regularly seeks to block political progress on public health interventions such as opioid substitution therapy and needle and syringe exchange intended to fulfil their human rights. It is now estimated that 37% of people who inject drugs in Russia are HIV positive and as many as 80% of all new HIV infections in the country are due to unsafe injecting practices.

To deflect attention from this, Russia has been seeking to push the blame onto farmers in Afghanistan by calling for NATO interventionaerial spraying of opium poppy. Experience from Colombia should indicate what terrible ideas military intervention and aerial spraying really are, where this has led to human displacement, food insecurity, health problems and increased poverty amid rising coca production rates and falling cocaine prices.

What is needed is a leader on human rights, not an oppressive and abusive government’s first choice. The Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki Moon, will soon make his decision and with it he will send a strong message one way or the other. So the Secretary-General has a choice to make: a candidate that represents the current problems in the international drug control system, or one that represents leadership on human rights?

I hope, at the very least, that this weekend’s killings in China to again mark a UN celebration will give him some pause for thought.