Vienna Declaration 2010

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By: Seram Neken Singh

Decriminalization of drug users was the main focus of the Vienna Declaration adopted in the just concluded International AIDS conference in Vienna. The State AIDS Policy of Manipur adopted as early as 1996 had already clearly dealt against stigmatization, discrimination and criminalization of drug users and people living with HIV. The rapid spread of HIV and drug abuse problem in Manipur can well be attributed to rampant criminalization and stigma attached to drug users in the eighties. Still today, there are instances of criminalization of substance abusers in Manipur society. Of course, situations compel the law enforcers and civil society to treat the drug abusers as criminals. However, tolerance is highly called for at this hour.
The Vienna Declaration 2010 drafted by a team of International Experts and endorsed by many including organizations like the International AIDS Society, International Centre for Science in Drug Policy and BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in the just concluded International AIDS Conference calls for decriminalization of drug users and implementation of evidence-based drug control approaches. It initiates reorientation of existing drug policies towards evidence-based approaches that respect, protect and fulfill human rights of drug users.

The 18th International AIDS conference (AIDS 2010) held in Vienna from 18–23 July 2010 adopted the ‘Vienna Declaration’- urging governments and international bodies to make drug and HIV policies evidence-based to end the counterproductive effects of law- enforcement-based drug policies on the health of illicit drug users. The conference was the main platform for those working in the field of HIV including scientists, policymakers and persons living with HIV to exchange views on the current state of the global HIV problem, access to treatment and prevention programmes. ‘Rights Here, Right Now’ is the slogan of the event emphasizing protection of human rights of those living with or most vulnerable to HIV. Right to health care and access to all scientifically sound HIV interventions was the underlying theme of the slogan. The conference focused on the HIV problem in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, a region with one of the fastest growing epidemics in the world primarily due to injecting drug use and limited access to proper health care and where injecting drug use is highly criminalized.

The Declaration clearly endorses that law enforcement has failed to prevent the availability of illegal drugs in communities where there is demand. Over the last several decades, national and international drug surveillance systems have demonstrated a general pattern of falling drug prices and increasing drug purity despite massive investments in drug law enforcement.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that increasing the ferocity of law enforcement meaningfully reduces the prevalence of drug use. The data also clearly demonstrate that the number of countries in which people inject illegal drugs is growing with women and children becoming increasingly affected. In some areas where HIV is spreading most rapidly, such as Eastern Europe and Central Asia, HIV prevalence is as high as 70% among people who inject drugs, and in some areas more than 80% of all HIV cases are among this group.

With overwhelming evidence of failure of drug law enforcement, harmful consequences need to be acknowledged and addressed. One of the consequences is the criminalization of people who use illicit drugs and prohibitions on the provision of sterile needles / syringes and substitution drugs. Stealthy and rapid HIV spread among institutionalized drug users is a result of punitive laws and policies and a lack of HIV prevention services in these settings. Law enforcement drives undermining the public health systems push away the drug users away from prevention and care services and into environments where the risk of infectious disease transmission is increased. Stigma towards people who use illicit drugs forces them to hide from society and HIV prevention and other health promotion efforts remain a far cry to them.

The Declaration calls on the governments and agencies to undertake a transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies and implement and evaluate a science-based public health approach to address the individual and community harms stemming from illicit drug use. Criminalization of drug users, scale up evidence-based drug dependence treatment options and abolish ineffective compulsory drug treatment centres that violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are the need of the hour.

Manipur situation:
It is worth appreciating that apart from numerous local Meira Paibees, state level civil society organizations like CADA and AMADA have come forward to solve the drugs problem in Manipur. Earlier the insurgent groups resorted to arresting and punishing the drug users at random. This could not bring a solution to the drugs problem as it was really a disease to the addicts. Now civil society has joined the war with understanding of the psychological treatment approach for this malaise. This writer can well feel the intolerable and unavoidable situations being encountered by many organizations to deal with some highly awful adolescent drug abusers.

Drug abuse in Manipur may also be seen as an immoral behaviour of the youths from social perspectives. The degrading and all round system failure affecting every aspect of the society arising out of mis-governance etc. also aggravate the problem of drug addiction in Manipur. Young people take drugs for many reasons. May be they do so in order to cope with the frustration in life due to poverty, unemployment, broken family, unrest of mind and for self-amusement or for satisfying company of friends etc. Many youths indulge in drug abuse to gain acceptance and popularity among the peers. Due to their gregarious nature, young people seek the company of their own age group. This leads to their exposure to various unwanted behaviour of their age group. The question is, since it would be impractical to expect them to dissociate from their herds, how they can be protected from being negatively influenced by the group behaviour.

One of the many ways youths may remain uninfluenced by their peer pressure may be found in enhancing and strengthening their self-knowledge. Self-knowledge will lead to self-respect and self-confidence with the accompanying sense of direction in life. Culture as a guide to morality and rationality has a major role to play in this regard. That is, a generation of young people with identity crisis carried by their having caught in the conflict arising out of tradition and change, with confused notions of values easily become victims of undesirable impacts of the dominant mainstream cultural values. The tendency for blind aping in the human nature can only be prevented by individuals with strong moral foundations that are easily taken care of by a deeper understanding of one’s own self’s notion. One who is endowed with a strong sense of direction in life, naturally has no time for straying into unproductive socially harmful activities. The disobedient youth in the family always create problems in the society. The social life without recreational activities also leads young people to indulge in drugs and alcohol. Lack of proper education, economic problems and political chaos, insurgent movements etc. are indirectly helping in the aggravation of the drugs problem in Manipur.

People at large hate the drug users. They scold them and ostracise them from social activities. They try to isolate them from friends and relatives. They are seen as criminals. No one thinks about the real causes of his misbehaviour. Instead of creating a supportive and enabling environment to relieve him from misbehaviour, the society rejects, stigmatises and discriminates him for his acts. Here, the writer would like to blame the society for its lack of social maturity and lack of knowledge. The attitude of the society towards the adolescent can be considered as immature and lacks depth when seen in the light of recent findings on child and social psychology.

Drug abuse is a disease and it cannot be solved overnight. The police model of arresting and harassing of drug users was proved futile in the past. The drug use cannot be prevented and controlled by the total abstinence theory also. Therefore, the harm reduction measures are adopted for treatment of drug users and have proved fruitful in Manipur. The Vienna Declaration 2010 emphasizing decriminalization of drug abusers is highly relevant in the context of Manipur. We need to endorse it whole heartedly.

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