The Pact

The UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs: an opportunity for change

By Ricardo Baruch (The PACT) and Murtaza Majeed (Youth RISE)

Two very important meetings are scheduled in 2016: the United Nations General�Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs and the High Level Meeting on�HIV/AIDS. Both will take place in April and June consequently in New York. All�Member States will discuss what should be done at the global level in order to deal�with issues around drug use, drug markets, drug control among others.

The drug control models and conventions came into play in an era where�homosexuality was considered a �sickness�, abortion was a �crime�, and from�history we know how stigmatizing and marginalizing communities have affected�homosexual populations; but, thanks to persistent advocacy and activism, most�governments accepted the fact and the health risks decreased among them. Alas,�drug use is still stigmatized, people who use drugs are still marginalized groups,�and data clearly indicates that the morbidity rate of drug users due to current�repressive policies and health care is very high.
But why is it important for stakeholders working on HIV issues? HIV epidemics in�most regions have started from people who inject drugs. Eastern Europe, Central�Asia and Southeast Asia are regions with high rates of HIV among drug users. For�example in Asian countries, it is estimated that 16% of people who inject drugs are�living with HIV. In Irkutsk, Russia 64,5% of injecting street drug users were living�HIV. Other regions like North America, South America and Western Europe also�have a strong problem with injected drugs and its relation with HIV and hepatitis�transmission. Drug use is an issue faced by other key populations such as sex�workers, transgender women and men who have sex with men. Therefore�reluctance towards drug use can affect all mentioned populations, and has already�led to social and health harms due to lack of services including HIV testing,�counselling, treatment, care and support.
UN agencies such as World Health Organization and UNAIDS have recommended�harm reduction as an evidence-based approach for HIV prevention for many years;�nevertheless, lack of coordination among the UN itself has made it challenging for�agreed common language on harm reduction support. Many Member States are�reluctant to implement life-saving public health interventions. Communities of�people who use drugs have low or no access to essential HIV prevention tools�such as needle and syringe exchange. As a consequence, children, youth, women�and other drug users could not have the essential human rights which are access�to health. Young people also face barriers to access youth friendly harm reduction�services, including age of consent laws.
Lack of harm reduction services at the grass roots level has deeply damaged our�society. It has created stigma and discrimination. Lack of support and�stigmatization has led drug users to stop believing in services and have made them�reluctant to talk about their drug issues. United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime�(UNODC) acknowledges very little changes in the overall global situation of�production, use and health consequences of illicit drugs. For this reason, the�General Assembly�s Special Session should bring a new step towards the drug�problems of people who use drugs. We cannot afford to lose time and lives�because another important meeting of the member states fails to act.
It is important for the HIV community, advocates and stakeholder to push their�governments to take on more progressive positions regarding drugs and especially�harm reduction, in order to improve public health and respect the human rights of�people who use drugs. From the vantage of human rights, access to the highest�quality of health care � as well as from the point of view of politicians making�decisions on behalf of the best interest of the society � harm reduction is a key�element to be discussed and accepted for HIV preventions among people who use�drugs. In order to protect our societies, Member States, UN agencies and other�stakeholders should support harm reduction and decriminalization of drug use.
In order to protect our societies, Member States, UN agencies and other�stakeholders should support harm reduction and young people�s access to youth�friendly services leading up to UNGASS in the next few months � this will feed into�processes to ensure we secure similar language in the High Level Meeting�Declaration in June.

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