A Canadian-led initiative that calls on governments to abandon the moralistic war on drugs and adopt evidence-based drug policies has become a centrepiece of the International AIDS Conference.
The Vienna Declaration - a scientific statement that argues the criminalization of drug use is fuelling the HIV/AIDS epidemic - has garnered a vast array of supporters, including Nobel Prize winners, political leaders, law-enforcement officials, public-health officials and community groups.
"There's a horrible discordance between evidence and policy in this realm so we felt a need to speak out," said Evan Wood, founder of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, co-chair of the committee that drafted the document and a professor at the University of British Columbia.
There is incontrovertible evidence that law enforcement has failed to curtail the market for illicit drugs, which is worth an estimated $320-billion (U.S.) a year, he said.
So, instead of merely arresting and jailing those who take illegal drugs, money should be spent on public-health efforts such as needle exchanges and methadone treatment. Removing the stigma and legal barriers will also make it easier for drug users to come forward to seek treatment for infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, as well as rehabilitative services.
"Basing drug policies on scientific evidence will not eliminate drug use or the problems stemming from drug injection," the Vienna Declaration reads. "However, reorienting drug policies towards evidence-based approaches … would allow for the redirection of vast financial resources to where they are needed most."
The 18th International AIDS Conference, being held in Vienna, is placing particular emphasis on drug users, because that is the root of the explosive growth HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe.
Dr. Wood noted that one in 100 adults in Russia is now HIV-positive. Russia has draconian drug laws; even methadone, a treatment for heroin addicts, is illegal.
Supporters of the Vienna Declaration have been particularly critical not only of Russia, but of Canada, where the federal government has made bolstering drug laws a central part of its tough-on-crime agenda.
Ottawa has also earned the enmity of scientists because it has sought to shut-down Insite, a safe injection site in Vancouver. That battle will be resolved in the Supreme Court of Canada.
"The benefits of harm reduction are so absolutely clear that you have to be contemptuous of the evidence, and of science more generally, to take the position of the Canadian government," said Stephen Lewis, the co-director of AIDS-Free World and a high-profile signatory of the Vienna Declaration. "Their position is absolutely indefensible."
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq told Canadian delegates who questioned her at the International AIDS Conference that she would not sign the Vienna Declaration because it clashes with Canada's National Anti-Drug Strategy, which is designed to prevent people from using illicit drugs in the first place.
A group of activists, angered by that view, trashed the Government of Canada booth at the conference on Tuesday.
"Canada has missed an important opportunity to show leadership in the struggle against HIV and AIDS and people are dying because of it," said Canadian harm-reduction activist Zoë Dodd. "Canadian criminalization of drug use is fanning the flames of the AIDS epidemic."
On Tuesday, the federal government unveiled a plan to reinvest $60-million in AIDS research and prevention. The promise comes months after the government scrapped a plan to build an $88-million vaccine plant with the help of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Julio Montaner, the Canadian researcher who is president of the International AIDS Society, said Ottawa's plan was "insufficient and disappointing.
"The Canadian government's commitment in this area is far too small when compared to the size of the government resources available and the funding needed," he said.Dr. Montaner, who has done groundbreaking work treating IV drug users infected with HIV/AIDS, is also a strong proponent of the Vienna Declaration.