Support Don't Punish Call to Action: Respect the Rights of People Who Use Drugs!

Posted by Editor on June 26, 2017

26 June 2017:

People who use drugs in Southern and East Africa, like elsewhere in the world, face considerable stigma, discrimination, and violence. However, they are still too often ignored in the context of HIV and public health.

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law  found that punitive laws enforced against people who use drugs but do no harm to others fuel the spread of HIV and keep users from accessing services for HIV and health care and comprehensive harm reduction programmes. The Global Commission recommended that countries must reform their approach towards drug use by ensuring  access by people who use drugs to effective HIV and health services, including harm reduction and voluntary, evidence-based treatment for drug dependence and decriminalising the possession of drugs for personal use.[1].

Despite these recommendations,  individual drug possession and use remains criminalised in Southern and East Africa. This criminalisation, combined with the high level of stigma towards people who use drugs, drives the discrimination and violence that people who use drugs continue to face in the region. Studies in recent years have shown increased drug use, specifically injecting drug use, in several countries in the region, including Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, the Seychelles, South Africa, and Tanzania. [2]

Despite evidence of the high risk of HIV transmission faced by drug users, countries in the region have been slow to include people who use drugs in their national HIV responses as key populations. Only nine countries in Southern and East Africa recognise people who use drugs as a key population,[3] while only four countries currently provide any harm reduction services.[4] Comprehensive harm reduction programmes, including but not limited to, needle exchanges and availability of opioid substitution therapy, are proven strategies that assist drug users in maintaining their health and empower drug users to make choices about their health. These programmes put the health and human rights of people who use drugs at the centre of the response.

Support Dont Punish is a global advocacy campaign calling for better drug policies that prioritise public health and human rights. The campaign, which started in 2013, aims to promote drug policy reform, and to change laws and policies which impede access to harm reduction interventions. A Global Day of Action is held annually on 26 June to bring attention to harmful drug policies and practices and to call for drug policy reform. In Southern and East Africa, civil society  organisations in Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda, Mauritius, Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe will be joining partners from all continents on the Global Day of Action on 26 June 2017 in proclaiming that the harms being caused by the war on drugs can no longer be ignored.

The AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa calls upon all stakeholders, including civil society and government actors, to take heed of the harms that punitive drug laws bring upon people who use drugs. We call upon civil society to support the advocacy work that many organisations do in the region to ensure accessible health services and availability of comprehensive harm reduction programmes for people who use drugs. We call upon civil society to support people who use drugs in accessing justice to redress the human rights violations that they face.

We call upon governments to decriminalise the possession of drugs for personal use, and to expand HIV programming with the meaningful involvement of people who use drugs. We call upon governments to ensure that comprehensive harm reduction programmes are made available and accessible for people who use drugs, including but not limited to needle and syringe exchanges and opioid substitution therapy.
But more than anything, we call upon civil society and governments to listen and to support people who use drugs, and organisations led by people who use drugs.

Now is the time to leave behind harmful politics, ideology and prejudice and to prioritise health and human rights over incarceration and futile efforts to achieve a ‘drug-free world’. It is time to support, and not punish people who use drugs and other non-violent drug offenders.

[2] UNAIDS. Getting to Zero: HIV in Southern and East Africa. (2013).
[3] DRC, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda
[4] Mauritius, South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya