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Decriminalization of Drug Use and Sex Work

In its continued, seemingly amplified crusade against HIV, the WHO spoke out from convention by advising nations all over the world to reform their laws that inadvertently enable the spread of HIV/AIDS. Most notably, the WHO advised for the decriminalization of drug use, especially intravenous drugs, and protections for sex workers.

The report, titled “Consolidated Guidelines on HIV Prevention, Diagnosis, Treatment and Care for Key Populations,” was released in July 2014 and contained the following declarations:

• “Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize injection and other use of drugs and, thereby, reduce incarceration.”

• “Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize the use of clean needles and syringes (and that permit needle and syringe programmes) and that legalize opioid substitution therapy for people who are opioid-dependent.”

• “Countries should work toward decriminalization of sex work and elimination of the unjust application of non-criminal laws and regulations against sex workers.”

• “Countries should work towards legal recognition for transgender people.”

• “Countries should work toward developing policies and laws that decriminalize same-sex behaviors.”

Each of the groups addressed in these statements, including sex workers, drug users, homosexuals and transgendered people, falls into the category of “key populations” at risk for HIV/AIDS. These populations also typically face laws and cultures that ostracize their lifestyles, leading to cycles of abuse and incarceration.

These factors create a formula that consistently punishes populations most in need of sound medical counseling, preventative education and medical treatment. As stated in the report, the key populations in question are “disproportionately affected by HIV in all countries and settings.”

Another notable aspect of the WHO’s report lies less in the substance of the text itself, but more so in the fact that it directly opposes the United Nation’s stance on the same issues. According to The Economist, the U.N. still holds to the 1988 position that every nation should dictate the criminalization of intentional possession and use of illegal narcotics under domestic law as it sees fit.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime shares the dissenting attitude toward the WHO’s report, as well, the idea that rehabilitation and societal reintegration tactics should be considered as alternatives to criminal sanctions.

Carefully worded, the report does not call for the legalization of activities such as drug use, but urges legal reform that focuses on rehabilitation versus criminalization.

In a statement to the Huffington Post, the senior adviser on strategy, policy and equity in the WHO’s Department of HIV Dr. Andrew Ball stated, “The guidelines recommend decriminalization of a range of behaviors of key populations…on public health grounds, so as to improve access to and utilization of health services, to reduce the likelihood of the adoption of riskier behaviors and to reduce incarceration rates.”

The HIV/AIDS world crisis is one of those issues that transcend border lines and cultures. The WHO has noted an increase in the number of cases in large cities in the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa. However, the poorest countries with the harshest incarceration laws, prominent cultural stigmas or least resources available are positioned to strongly heed the WHO’s reform considerations as they apply to each nation individually.

Edward Heinrich

Sources: io9, Washington Blade, The Economist, Huffington Post, PRI
Photo: io9