The nation’s ongoing war on drugs leads to the spread of HIV, says a new coalition of leaders that includes a famous billionaire and a former secretary of State.
Mostly they’re worried about intravenous drug users who share needles, a habit that can spread the virus. The 22-page report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy argues that fear of jail time sends injection-drug users into an underground where they’re more likely to share a needle than risk getting a clean one from a needle exchange or other government programs. And even if needle users wanted a safer route, these needle exchange programs are increasingly hard to find in the U.S. Critics in Congress say the exchanges increase crime and send addicts the wrong message, so in 2011 lawmakers reinstated a ban on federal funding for them here and abroad.
Those signing the report include British Virgin magnate Richard Branson, six former presidents of foreign countries, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, and George Shultz, who is a former secretary of State and of the Treasury and Labor departments.
The bipartisan group argues that the drug war only worsens the problem in the United States because inmates are at increased risk for contracting and then spreading the disease. According to Time magazine, the number of people in prison for drug charges has increased 10-fold since President Ronald Reagan began a war on drugs in the early 1980s. Today more than 50% of federal prison inmates are there on drug convictions, and 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges in 2009 alone, the majority simply for possession.
According to Branson and other leaders, 25% of all Americans who are infected with HIV pass through correctional facilities each year. Those who are on medication often find treatment interrupted by their incarceration, which the group warns can lead to HIV drug resistance.
“Arresting and imprisoning nonviolent people who use drugs must end,” says Branson, who issued a statement arguing that it’s more expensive to prosecute and imprison drug users than to offer treatment. “Refusing to implement such proven public health measures that reduce HIV infection and protect people who use drugs is criminal,” he says.