Harm reduction as part of the solution

Friday, January 23, 2009

needle_exchangeIt is still not clear what the drug policy of President Obama will be. He has not appointed his drug czar. Many high-ranking Bush Administration officials have yet to leave office and are still setting the agenda on drug policy.

In the absence of clear new policies and guidelines, the DEA raided a California medical marijuana dispensary last Thursday, in the first days of the new Obama Administration, despite Obama's campaign promise to end such federal raids on state medical marijuana patients and their caregivers. As a senator, Obama voted against an amendment in the US Senate that was intended to undermine state medical marijuana laws.

Obama has not appointed a new ‘drug czar’ yet, nevertheless he already has a 2009 National Drug Control Strategy, prepared by the outgoing Bush administration’s White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

The Obama White House did announce that the new President supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of HIV/AIDS infection among drug users. Needle exchange is an essential of HIV/AIDS prevention strategy and is known around the world as harm reduction.

Although it seems that Obama has avoided to mention harm reduction in his campaign, in the early stages he was confronted with the question. In an interview that was published in September 2006, he showed that he was well aware of what harm reduction means:

“I understand the controversial nature of implementing harm reduction methods on a national level. However, this is not a novel concept. Many developed nations rely on harm reduction as part of the solution to control the spread of HIV/AIDS. We can either acknowledge the potential public health benefits of harm reduction, while continuing to strengthen law enforcement efforts in the war on drugs, or we can choose to allow the drug world to be a breeding ground for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and so many other preventable diseases.” 

It is not a novel concept in the US either. As of late 2007, 185 needle exchange programs existed in 36 US states, plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico.

Nevertheless, while he is now the new President, US delegates in Vienna negotiating a new Political Declaration – to be approved in March 2009 at the high-level segment of the 52nd session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs – are stalling the introduction of the words harm reduction and related language. 

Many countries look at the UN for guidelines on drug policy. An official recognition of needle exchange and harm reduction in drug control strategies would enhance effective measures against HIV/AIDS and other bloodborne diseases, and significantly reduce the number of overdose deaths. It is allowed in the US and implemented succesfully. However, internationally the US tells countries that they should not even consider mentioning it.

It is about time that President Obama starts to issue some clear policy guidelines – if not, a unique opportunity is lost to send a clear message to the international community that the new administration is willing to take the fight against HIV/AIDS and other bloodborne diseases seriously.