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East European War on Drugs Fails

WARSAW, Nov 26 2012 (IPS) - When the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which advocates an end to what it says has been a failed ‘war on drugs’, held its latest working meeting in Warsaw last month, the choice of venue was apt.

Eastern Europe, with the notable exception of the Czech Republic where possession of some drugs was decriminalised in 2010, has some of Europe’s strictest drugs legislation. It also has some of the world’s worst drugs-related problems. And the two are inexorably linked, according to the Global Commission.

“We wanted to highlight the problems Eastern Europe faces with repressive drugs policy and its links to very serious problems in the region,” Ruth Dreifuss, former Swiss president and a member of the Commission, told IPS.

Under communism, Eastern bloc countries’ legislation on drugs was typically repressive. But since the communist regimes fell, policy has been slow to change in the region and, in some countries, remains as repressive as it was just over 20 years ago.

Stiff jail sentences are not uncommon for possession of even small amounts of cannabis, and prosecutions are often fervently pursued with the full force of local legal systems. In Russia, widely seen as having the most repressive drug laws in Europe, possession of any amount of drugs – even the residue in a used syringe – is likely to result in a lengthy jail sentence, sometimes up to eight years.

Drug users’ access to harm reduction programmes, including opiate substitution therapy (OST) – a treatment for drug users in which methadone or buprenorphine are provided to heroin users and which is standard practice in much of the rest of the world – and needle exchanges, is often officially, or unofficially, absent or restricted.

The result of these laws has been, campaigners for more liberal drugs laws say, not just the development of deadly epidemics, but a failure to reduce the numbers of drug users.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) have the world’s fastest-growing HIV epidemic. Injection drug use has been identified as fuelling the epidemic – accounting for up to 70 percent of new infections, according to the WHO.

Addicts admit to being afraid to get treatment for fear of criminal prosecution, and some say they would rather risk getting HIV than going to a needle exchange centre.

Hepatitis C is another chronic problem in the region, where, like HIV, it is largely spread through injection drug use. According to the Open Society Foundation, in some cities in Poland, Hepatitis C infection rates among injection drug users are above 80 percent.

Another lethal disease, tuberculosis, is also a major health concern, particularly in former Soviet countries. It is rife in overcrowded prisons, where many drug users end up as a result of local punitive drug policies.

UNAIDS officials have said that the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the region could be effectively eradicated through the use of harm prevention programmes. And according to published medical studies by western experts, harm reduction programmes have been shown to reduce the risk of Hepatitis C infections in injection drug users by up to 75 percent.

Campaigners also claim that incarcerating people found in possession of tiny amounts of drugs in overcrowded, underfunded prisons which are hotbeds of disease only encourages the further spread of tuberculosis and underlines the flawed philosophy behind punitive drug laws as a means of tackling drug abuse.

Dasha Ocheret of the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network, who has spent years working with drug addicts in Eastern Europe, told IPS: “I’ve lost several friends because they were jailed for drug possession and then died soon after their release because of a tuberculosis infection.

“And out of hundreds of drug users from Russia that I know, not one of them stopped using drugs because they were sent to prison or because of the threat of a prison sentence.”

Governments in Eastern Europe defend their countries’ strict drugs laws by saying they act as a deterrent to drug users and reduce demand for narcotics while at the same time helping bring about the arrest of drug dealers.

But the Global Commission and other similar organisations argue that evidence from decades of trying to tackle drugs problems with repressive measures shows that such policies are costly and completely ineffective.

Alexander Kwasniewski was president of Poland in 2000 when he signed into law some of the harshest anti-drugs legislation in Europe, including three-year prison sentences for possession of even the tiniest amount of drugs.

Now a member of the Global Commission, Kwasniewski says the law was a mistake and is vigorously encouraging governments to rethink their drugs policies.

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