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Protesters outside the International AIDS conference in Vienna on July 18. (Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters outside the International AIDS conference in Vienna on July 18. (Samuel Kubani/AFP/Getty Images)

'War on drugs' fuels HIV epidemic as governments ignore science, experts say Add to ...

Two Vancouver-based groups that do research on HIV-AIDS and drug policy say the war on drugs waged by many governments, including the government of Canada, has failed to curb illegal drug use and is actually fuelling the spread of the disease.

"There's just a huge discordance between scientific evidence and policy," said Dr. Evan Wood, founder of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy and a researcher at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV-AIDS.

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The two groups support the Vienna Declaration, the official document of the International AIDS Conference taking place in the Austrian capital this week.

The document accuses governments - including Canada's, which has already rejected the Vienna Declaration - of ignoring research that shows harm-reduction programs such as safe-injection sites and needle exchanges are far more effective at mitigating the negative effects of the illegal drug trade, including the spread of HIV.

Prosecuting drug addicts only pushes their habits underground, where needles are shared, sex is unprotected and users are beyond the reach of health-care workers and addiction treatment, Wood said.

The focus on crime and punishment also results in "policy displacement," he said, in which the money and resources poured into the war on drugs means less is available to actually help addicts use drugs safely and cope with their addictions.

The Conservative government has made strengthening this country's drug laws a central part of its tough-on-crime agenda, imposing harsher mandatory sentences, while at the same time trying to close a safe-injection site in Vancouver, Wood said.

The federal government is currently asking the Supreme Court of Canada to let it shut down the site, known as Insite, despite its own research that shows the facility helps prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis while having no negative effect on crime.

"When the Harper government came to power, they took harm reduction out of Canada's drug strategy," said Wood.

"Despite all the scientific evidence that shows Insite reduces the spread of HIV, reduces overdose deaths, saves taxpayer dollars, helps get people into addiction treatment, a lot of money is being spent on lawyers trying to close the program."

The Canadian government says the Vienna Declaration doesn't fit in with this country's drug policies, which primarily focus on enforcement and getting people off drugs.

"Given that some of the recommendations outlined in the Vienna Declaration are inconsistent with Canada's National Anti-Drug Strategy and current federal drug policy, Canada will not support the document," Charlene Wiles of the Public Health Agency of Canada writes in an email.

"The government of Canada believes that the best way to address the public health consequences of injection drug-use is to prevent people from using illicit drugs in the first place. Treatment services are essential in helping those addicted to drugs to stop."

Still, Wiles notes federal funding does support needle exchanges offered by provincial and territorial governments, as well as an array of HIV-AIDS treatment and outreach programs targeting groups such as injection-drug users and youth considered to be at a greater risk.

However, Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd, who has signed the declaration, accuses the Harper government of simply ignoring scientific research.

For example, Boyd was asked by the federal government to review Insite, and he concluded the facility had no impact on crime and produced a "modest decline" in public drug use while at the same time saving the government money in health-care and law enforcement costs.

But despite the findings, Ottawa asked the courts to shut the facility down.

"I think they operate within a fairly narrow ideological framework; they seem to resent science," says Boyd.

"They deny it, but all the science would say they're pushing for more violence and more corruption in the drug trade. You're not going to blast your way out of this one, and there's absolutely no evidence globally that you can do so."

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