War on drugs and its victims

Eurasian Harm Reduction Network statement for the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking

24 June 2016

For over 30 years, this is the day when the whole world is talking about drug issues. However, what is been called ‘the war on drugs’ in policy-makers’ speeches, turns out to be a war against people who use drugs in real life.

There are a growing number of researchers, public officials and activists all around the world who recognize that this war is ineffective, it causes human deaths and creates massive financial costs. The number of victims is increasing as a result of new HIV and hepatitis C infections, drug overdoses and cruel prison sentences. The situation is further aggravated by the growing organised crime and the emergence of new, even more dangerous synthetic drugs on the illegal drug market.

In the meantime, the huge global investments in the enforcement war turn out to be wasteful expenditure as the overflowing prisons cannot help people to get rid of drug addiction, instead acting as a reservoir of infectious diseases and a criminal community with high recidivism rates, with a growing number of inmates sentenced purely for drug use.

EECA remains the only region in the world where the HIV epidemic is still on the raise and drug use and/or possession for personal use are being criminalized. Repeated drug use is considered criminal activity in Belarus, Georgia and Latvia (with prison sentences imposed). In Albania, Estonia, Moldova, Slovenia, Kazakhstan and Montenegro, drug possession for personal use is punished as administrative offence.

One of the cruel consequences of “the war on drugs” is the ban on the opioid substitution treatment drugs in the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan. As results of this “war,” over 1,500 drug-addicted patients in Ukraine (Crimea and Donbass) were denied access to substitution therapy and dozens of them have died over these past two years.

In Georgia, as a result of the police massive street drug testing of tens of thousands of drug users, there is a growing prison population of inmates who are there for drug addiction. Besides that, drug users are afraid to call for ambulance help in the case of overdose, which results in higher overdose death rates. In many countries, law-enforcement agencies use medical databases on drug addicted patients as a source of information on potential crime suspects. There were recently a number of documented incidents of illegally collected and used drug-user personal data by police in Armenia and Ukraine.

The war on drugs’ failure has become increasingly evident year after year. At the same time, a number of countries express a growing recognition of and a willingness to learn from successful experiences and expertise of Portugal, where one simple measure such as decriminalizing drug possession 15 years ago, has now lead to unquestionable improvements in people health and lives.

On this day, the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network, which brings together hundreds of experts and organisations from across two dozen countries, calls on the governments of the countries within the region to put an end to the brutal war on drugs in order to avoid new victims and deaths that are totally preventable. We are calling to make appropriate changes and amendments to the national legislations in order to achieve the following:

- To recognize that drug addiction is a social and health care issue, rather than a criminal activity;

- To decriminalize drug use and drug possession for personal use;

- To wider introduce alternatives to incarceration for people convicted of drug offences;

- To secure unrestricted access to opioid substitution therapy and other harm reduction services for drug users.