Decriminalising drugs – a wise investment?
On Sunday Sir Richard Branson was quoted in the Observer as saying that politicians should be braver on drugs policy. That they are wrong to believe that decriminalisation would be a vote-loser.
The evidence, though, is that politicians have a long way to go to reach that point and, undoubtedly, other priorities. Indeed, if gay marriage is causing so many political problems it is hard to see them turning to the thorny issue of once again reclassifying cannabis, let alone other drugs such as methamphetamine or cocaine.
Yet at the International Harm Reduction conference taking place in Vilnius this week there has been evidence presented from countries, such as the Czech Republic, that decriminalisation has not seen a feared upturn in drug use and it has reduced the prison population.
In Portugal, which has long had the same policy, they now have one of the lowest incarceration rates in Europe.
And there is much wider recognition now of harm reduction in all its forms. The recent changes in law in Washington and Colorado on marijuana and moves from some of the Latin American countries reflects a view held by some that punitive measures and the billions poured into the war on drugs is not working.
Yet this comes at the same time as funding is being cut still further on harm reduction programmes. In Lithuania, which is hosting the conference, one of the needle exchange programmes is about to run out of needles. There are reports of similar issues in coastal Africa.
David Wilson, director of the World Bank’s Global Aids Programme, says harm reduction is cost effective in terms of HIV cases averted and healthy years gained.
Australia, for instances invested A$243 million in needle exchange programmes and prevented an estimated 32,050 HUV infections and 96,667 hepatitis C cases.
Indeed, the estimate is that for every dollar invested in harm reduction $27 is saved.
In Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia 3.7m inject drugs – one quarter of injecting drug users worldwide. Now one million people who inject drugs have HIV.
How much is spent? An estimated $160m in lower and middle income countries – that is three cents a day for people who inject drugs.
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