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One More Reason to End the War on Drugs: It's Spreading HIV/AIDS

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One More Reason to End the War on Drugs: It's Spreading HIV/AIDS
Richard Branson, Ruth Dreifuss, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Cesar Gaviria at a press conference in New York City
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

The war on drugs isn't just a huge, bloody, and counterproductive waste of money and lives. Turns out it's also the "main reason" HIV/AIDS is still spreading around the world.

That's the blunt assessment of the gold-plated Global Commission on Drug Policy, an all-star team of former presidents and assorted luminaries who call in a new report for big changes in the way governments tackle drugs.

"The global war on drugs is driving the HIV pandemic among people who use drugs and their sexual partners," says the report. "Repressive drug law enforcement practices" – drug seizures, arrests, criminal convictions – "force drug users away from public health services and into hidden environments where HIV risk becomes markedly elevated." Mass incarceration, another mainstay of the drug war, also plays a role, says the report, noting that as many as 25 percent of Americans infected with HIV may pass every year through correctional facilities, where prevention and treatment measures leave a lot to be desired.

The result: HIV is bigger than it needs to be in countries like the U.S. and is growing in certain regions and countries, thanks mostly to injection drug use.

The commissioners -- they include six former presidents and other assorted big shots, such as Richard Branson, Paul Volcker, and George Schultz -- slam countries like the United States and Russia for ignoring or downplaying proven, cost-effective and "evidence-based addiction treatment and public health measures" like sterile syringe access, safer injection facilities, and prescription heroin programs, and call on governments to change course "immediately." "Failure to take these steps is criminal," the report says.

This shouldn't be a tough sell (though it is, at least in the U.S.): It's not as if the war on drugs is succeeding even on its own terms, as the commission's bombshell first report made clear last year: For all the people killed (50,000 in the past six years in Mexico alone) or thrown in jail, the worldwide supply of drugs hasn't decreased; it has exploded, by up to 300 percent.

"Any sober assessment of the impacts of the war on drugs would conclude that many national and international organizations tasked with reducing the drug problem have actually contributed to a worsening of community health and safety," says the report. "This must change."

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