The War on Drugs is helping to exacerbate the spread of HIV, according to a new report.
An increase in HIV infections in Eastern European, Central Asian countries and even some pockets of the United States can be tied to strict penalties on intravenous drug users, the Global Commission on Drug Policy's concluded.
Since the 1990s, effective public-health strategies to curb HIV transmission in drug users have led to drops in new infections in most countries. But over the same time period, seven countries have seen a 25% increase in new infections. Not coincidentally, five of these countries — mainly in Eastern Europe and Central Asia — employ aggressive drug war strategies, such as arresting and incarcerating users for drug or needle possession.
That trend holds for the United States as well. Areas with the highest infection rates are those that have the toughest drug policies, TIME notes.
The reason, according to the report, is that drug users in doggedly policed areas don't seek out clean needles for fear of being arrested. Dirty needles are a leading cause of HIV transmission, the report says.
Inside the U.S., the effect of the war on drugs is seen perhaps nowhere more glaringly than in Washington D.C. The city has previously been banned by the federal government from using its own funds on needle exchange programs. The result, according to TIME, is that D.C. has a higher infection rate of 3 percent, higher than Ethiopia or Sierra Leone.
The report makes several recommendations to curb this problem, including stopping the practice of arresting and imprisoning people who use drugs but don't harm others.
It also suggests a greater reliance on treatment programs and spending less money on drug law enforcement, and more on rehabilitation for users.
The panel that put together the report -- titled "The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS: How Criminalization of Drug Use Fuels the Pandemic" -- included six former presidents, British business magnate Richard Branson and former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker.
About one-third of all new infections outside of sub-Sarahan Africa occur in injection-drug users, according to TIME.
In an email to The Huffington Post, Ezekiel Edwards, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Criminal Law Reform Project, says the War on Drugs puts law enforcement's priorities out of whack.
"Protecting the public from fatal blood-borne diseases should be law enforcement’s priority, not harassing drug users," Edwards said. "Access to disease-free syringes among I.V. drug users is proven to significantly reduce the spread of fatal blood-borne diseases among the general population, including HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C."
Edwards also said any fear that needle exchange programs could lead to more drug use is unfounded.
"There is no evidence that programs providing access to disease-free injection equipment result in an increase in drug use," he said. "There is overwhelming evidence that needle exchange programs work: they prevent the transmission of HIV and do not promote substance use."